Book review: Love in Small Letters by Francesc Miralles

(cover image courtesy Alma Books)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life was like the movies?

Not Alien or Zodiac because no one wants that kind of trouble; no, films like Sleepless in Seattle or While You Were Sleeping where there are complications sure but life and love generally end up in the sweet spot of all spots, happily ever after is a reality not a story-ending warm-and-fuzzy finish and five glorious steps forward aren’t met by eight or so back.

Alas, though, life defies any and all attempts to shoehorn it into neat and nice linear progressions and so we are left, as is Samuel, the protagonist in Francesc Miralles (translated by Julie Wark) book Love in Small Letters, uncertainly and unevenly grappling with the messy and contrary business of living.

For every glimpse on the street of a long lost childhood friend, Gabriela, for whom he has had feelings all his life, there is an awkward meeting that devolves into a less than happy ending, and for every chance meeting of new friends in cafes or upstairs neighbouring apartments, there are push backs and push aways.

Life is, in short, hard to predict and even harder to execute, something that Samuel, who wakes on New Year’s Day convinced he is in for the same old same old, comes to know all too well when his carefully-calibrated existence is upended in the best and yet most unpredictable of ways.

“I had a strange feeling when I got home. My encounter with the bearded man and his manuscript had set off alarm bells in my mind, as if reading what I shouldn’t have read was going to have consequences – the butterfly effect unleashing a chain of small events with devastating results.”

There’s a good reason for the lack of any expectation of real or meaningful change.

Samuels, a lecturer at the Department of German Studies and Linguistics at one of the universities in Barcelona, is a man of a small and certain world – he moves between home and work and back again, content to spend his nights reading, listening to classical music and watching the news, with occasional, very occasional visits to the local cinema to see a foreign film or an infrequent drink at a bar.

It’s all thoroughly knowable, something Samuel himself acknowledges – he is a very self-aware man who’s painfully aware his life has fallen into a hole of his own making – and seemingly set in stone.

Someone, however, forgot to tell Mishima the cat.

One day he waltzes into Samuel’s life as if he has already belonged there, ushering in new people, experiences and the possibility with the glib je ne sais quoi for which cats are justifiably celebrated or reviled (depending on where you sit on the cat/dog lover spectrum).

Francesc Miralles (image courtesy Alma Books)

Samuel is no fan of cats but Mishima won’t take no for answer, and sets in train a series of events which shake up his new servant’s world in ways he never countenanced but which he comes to find almost impossible to walk back from.

He comes to know his upstairs neighbour Titus, an older man who writes self-help and inspirational books on one of Mishima’s major extra-curricular sojourns – the entire apartment complex is his feline home and he sees it as his natural born right to come and go as he pleases – the mysterious and quirky Valdemar from a bar he begins to frequent, Meritxell the vet with whom he flirts a little, ultimately unsuccessful, and Gabriela, his childhood love whom he has never stopped loving.

It’s a lot of change for someone so set in their ways, but two important dynamics come into way as these people rewrite the physical and emotional landscape of Samuel’s once-carefully constrained life.

Firstly, it becomes apparent that Samuel’s appetite for change and his willingness to embrace and run with it has never really died; the hope for something more has always been there, it’s just never had any purpose and direction and thus no form.

Secondly, while he does put himself out there in myriad kinds of ways, taking on a writing project from Titus, spending many hours talking to Valdemar about his considerable number of off-the-wall ideas and trying to kindle something meaningful with Gabriela, who is not at all interested at first, the journey to a whole new life isn’t straightforward nor is it universally transformative.

“‘It’d be wonderful to be your friend, because it’s a privilege to spend time with you. But I love you too much to keep pretending. Gabriela, walk away now or I’ll have to kiss you.’

Once the words were out, I was overwhelmed by a dizzying need to flee and rushed off without waiting for her reaction. My head was spinning as I scurried away from the square. I felt like the most ridiculous man in the world because, having made my threat, I was the one who’d run away.” (P. 241)

Which is exactly how real life is.

We might and should dream big, and we should, like Samuel, open ourselves up to the delightfully unexpected and gloriously unplanned, but things will never proceed or go the way they do in the movies.

That’s not to say things won’t go well – there is much about Samuels’ life that is immeasurably better, if not flawlessly brought to fruition, by the end of Love in Small Letters which beautifully celebrates the joy to be found in the every day small acts we take for granted.

But the path to those good and great things won’t be smooth, it will be filled with missteps and backward momentum and while those kinds of setbacks aren’t enjoyable at the time, they are not always deal breakers and can lead, as Samuel discovers, to some very good places indeed.

Love in Small Letters is a philosophically rich, affectingly human and winningly quirky book that takes quiet joy in the groundedness of hope, acknowledging that life doesn’t always play out as we might but making it reassuringly clear that that is not the end of the story and that if we persist, and even sometimes when we don’t (hope is not perpetual or consistent), we might find our journey has a destination that makes all the frustrating fallibility of our humanity, with its hope-sapping moments, feels absolutely worthwhile.

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