Jennifer Quist’s “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” (Book Review)

In every romantic relationship there are unspoken understandings and expectations. Who will do the dishes, who will choose Christmas gifts, who will kill the spiders, who will use all the hot water. Whose heart will be the heaviest at the end.

 “Even though you’re not quite a full year younger than me, neither of us doubts for an instant that you will outlive me. Maybe it’s based on nothing more intuitive than the fact that I’m the male in this marriage. But somehow, we both know that eventually you will be left alone with the two-hundred-pound unanswered question of my corpse.” (p.11)

Jennifer Quist’s “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is (contrary to the Gothic-sounding title) a lyrical, rich love story between a husband and wife. The characters are full-blooded, incredibly vibrant and above all firmly, undeniably relatable. Nobody has piercing eyes, or heart-stopping features, this is real life. The wife is pregnant in several of the stories told, they argue, sneak kisses when the kids aren’t watching, they each have their pet peeves and morbid fascinations. What they have is each other, and an obviously deep, committed relationship which is their support and anchor through ordinary, difficult, crushingly difficult experiences.

 “He can’t speak but I hear him struggling – all breath and tears – miles and miles away.  And somehow, you know it all even though you can’t hear any of it. You’re leaning over me at the kitchen table while I’ve still got the phone held to my ear. Everyone knows angels lost their wings ages ago – back in the Renaissance, I’m pretty sure. We’ve outgrown the need for them ourselves and we’re each left with two arms in their place. You fold yours around my shoulders. They draw me against you. And you’re whispering my little brother’s name like a warm, wet prayer, your face pressed into the side of my neck.” (p. 55)

In our emailed interview , Quist wrote of the closeness of the relationship between the two main characters: “We talk about being “one” with our spouses but I sometimes wonder if many of us believe it’s something that can happen to us as we exist right now.  I think it can happen and I was hoping to write about what that kind of unity looks and feels like using these characters.  Oneness is among the deepest, most mystical aspects of our beliefs.  It’s a miracle we call down on ourselves.  And it eludes a mere intellectual explanation.  Fiction and storytelling help say what can’t be said.  Maybe that’s what ties them together — a miracle.”

Quist has a deft spin of phrase, humour and evocative imagery which lingers and chews on your imagination long after you have turned the page:

 “As an adult, my brother looks like me only toasted brown and buffed up for skilled manual labour. But as the child you met that afternoon, he was all knees and elbows and no personal space at all. He darted around you like a Cupid celebrating an emerging Venus – my own mildly heat-exhausted Venus, stepping out of the car and onto the grass.” (p. 54)

Quist crafts, builds, and conveys so much in a fistful of words:

 “On the other end of the phone, our Cupid is crashing in a heap of feathers and arrows.” (p. 55)

The story, characters and lushness of prose sucked me deep into “Love Letters of the Angels of Death”, and I read it all in three sittings, begrudging the time spent outside its pages. One question I couldn’t help thinking about while not reading it, was how to describe her novel to someone who would be put off by the title. Quist’s response?

“A team of us agonized over how to write the synopsis on the back cover and I don’t think I could do much better than that.  I would like people to understand it’s not a self-indulgent Gothic fantasy but a love story (though not a romance).  And it’s not a marriage manual either.  There’s no “we interrupt this story to bring you these important messages.””

“Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is an exploration of a couple’s understandings and expectations of each other, shared beautifully – dirt, laughter, quirks, grief and all – through a series of vignettes over the course of many years. We get to learn about the characters as we learn about anyone; in bits and pieces, in jokes and family folklore, in the ordinary and unexpected, in and out of chronological order. Themes dance and rumble through the novel (such as loss, remembrance, dedication and commitment), giving a depth and permanence to the story that is surprising, wonderful and luxurious, and makes the last page difficult to turn.

Quist’s book is a finalist for this round of Whitney Awards, and it is a powerhouse all on its own. For me, “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is already firmly ensconced as the best book I have read in the last six months, and it will take seismic activity, an alien invasion AND some master-crafted literary marvel to make me even think of beginning to change my mind. Seriously, this is a gorgeous, beautiful piece of lyrical realism.

Read it, and be changed.

Recommended to:

  •  Anyone wanting to read a book
  • Anyone looking for strong, beautiful, realistic depictions of marriage, men and women
  • Enjoyers of gorgeous prose and imagery

Not recommended for:

  •  Anyone uncomfortable with the inevitable death of family members
  • Those who like their love stories to involve phrases like “His/her eyes were stunning pools of sapphire/molten chocolate/moon dust…”

Rated: PG – themes of death and loss

About Kellie

(Blog Editor) lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing at selwynssanity.blogspot.com as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

6 thoughts on “Jennifer Quist’s “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” (Book Review)

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review and recommendations. Based on what you’ve written, it sounds as if one more category could be included in “Not recommended for:” anyone already grieving the death(s) of family members. (I’ve still got the notebooks wherein my late husband and I wrote notes to each other. I’m glad to have them, but “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” sounds too close to home for me.)

  2. I just started this today–it took me a minute to get used to the second person prose (not something I’m used to seeing), but I can already see what you’re talking about . . .

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