Dorothy Graham writes unsent letters to people she admires, and to a few she despises. As well, in her retirement she has time to pursue her other hobby -- interfering in the lives of others. With no children of her own, she ‘helps’ the offspring of her friend and her cousin. But this still isn’t enough. Seeing the mess that the world is in, she and her cohorts Kate and Elsie decide to put together a fund-raising effort for a charity organization. It soon becomes clear to them that putting the universe to rights, in ways large or small, is not an easy task. The theme of love lost and found also runs through the novel, affecting the old as well as the young. Entangled in family problems -- a stray daughter, an absconded husband, a home threatened with demolition -- the three friends’ adventures lead them to understand that while charity doesn’t have to begin at home, it might be a good idea to look there first.
In Rachel Wyatt’s new novel, Letters to Omar, the recently retired Dorothy Graham is also determined to achieve perfection, whether it is through her pastime of penning unsent letters to her hero Omar Sharif, or to others who she imagines deserve either her admiration or her admonition. These letters reveal a well-meaning busybody who might best turn her righteousness and indignation inwardly in self-improvement, rather than inflicting her boundless energy upon improving the world she lives in, with often hilarious results. With no children of her own, she interferes in the lives of the offspring of her friend and her cousin. Dorothy and her cohorts Kate and Elsie decide to put together a fundraising effort for a charity organization by hosting a dinner in aid of food delivery to remote parts of Afghanistan. The novel is worth reading for the description of this dinner alone, a nightmare of epic proportions. For example, the do-gooders decide that the local homeless people should receive the leftovers at the end of the banquet, a themed meal of goat, baklava and other foods that the women wrongly imagine are Afghani staples. When the homeless men arrive in tattered clothes, the media cameras are turned upon them: Dorothy was beside them now. ‘Come right in,’ she said. If anything could save the situation, it might be these three ragged intruders. She turned to the guests. ‘These are some of the people we are trying to help.’... At that moment, a man with a camera on his shoulder came in...The camera was turned on the homeless men as the older one said, ‘Who eats this shit?’ ‘Act like we’re not here, everybody,’ the woman said. People began to talk again. Politely they watched and didn’t stare as the unexpected guests stood up, each taking a bottle [of wine] from the table, and went out into the street again. There was applause, as if it truly had been a staged scene. All three of these older women are equally deluded about the nature of love, a theme reflected in the lives of the younger characters as well. Wyatt has a gift for developing characters who use humour to respond to otherwise dire situations. This is one of the strengths the women have developed in old age, along with the wisdom to sustain friendships over a long course. One of Wyatt’s perennial ideas is that, no matter how introspective we are, we seldom understand the true nature of our relationships, even those with our oldest and dearest companions. Some of her themes emerge most poignantly through the letters penned by Dorothy (of which we could have had more in the novel). Here, for instance, is how Dorothy sums up her observations in a missive to the Queen: ‘I have to tell you that, wonderful as old friends are, they are not always perfect or even reliable. In fact, they don’t always listen.’ But it is the company of old friends that provides the pleasure, and most especially the laughter, that allows us to gain perspective on the nature of charity both at home and afar.
CanLit Blog Reviewed By: James Onusko Reviewed On: January 6, 2011
Wyatt's letters are a wonderful read
Award-winning Victoria author Rachel Wyatt has crafted a sophisticated and captivating novel. While Omar Sharif’s star may have faded somewhat in the last two decades, Wyatt does a great job of contextualizing his enduring appeal to so many people around the world. In a digression, while I would argue that Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago is superior to director David Lean’s very good screen version, without question, the on-screen romance between Sharif and Julie Christie continues to intrigue film aficionados more than forty years later. In her novel, Wyatt manages to infuse humour into several sorrow-filled scenes and none of it is forced. She can boast that rare talent of sensing when her characters would use humour to defuse situations that threaten to become explosions, or at the very least, exceedingly uncomfortable. Furthermore, Wyatt’s ease in representing lasting, mature relationships is excellent and important to the novel’s narrative arch. Aging, lament, sexuality, gender transitioning and loss are some of the major themes in the book. Wyatt’s insights into the human actions and motivations that interact with these themes are profound. The three main characters are believable with their many flaws making them both likeable and easy to champion.
The novel focuses on three women who are of retirement age that decide to tackle a cause that will benefit people in war-torn Afghanistan. The action is set in contemporary Toronto and the narrative is driven by the challenges in navigating the journey in trying to improve the lives of people halfway around the globe. The three main characters, Dorothy, Kate, and Elsie decide to organize a modest charity dinner and this event becomes the focus of the greater part of the novel. The three women find that their naïveté in organizing these types of events, coupled with the amount of follow-up administrative work, can be much more challenging than first conceived. The charity dinner occurs prior to the denouement of the novel and while it serves as its climax, the complex narrative strands that run through the novel are unwound skillfully during the last third of the book when other important events unfold.
Additionally, the title of Wyatt’s book is centred on the fact that one of the three friends, Dorothy Graham, has written private unsent letters for decades to people she admires and others that she hates. Many of the letters are addressed to Omar Sharif. Dorothy has admired him for his looks and worldliness since the 1960s. Throughout the book, the potential publishing of the letters in book form becomes an important issue. The letters are at times poignant, timely in tackling issues such as abortion (one is addressed to Henry Morgentaler), or wickedly humorous at other turns. They are an obvious strength and highlight of the novel.
In this excerpt, Dorothy has written to the reclusive Marlene Dietrich:
Dear Ms. Dietrich,
What was it about you? You were no angel, but you offered heaven to your audience. During the war, when you visited the troops and sang hymns to the transient love of perilous times, you gave those men a pass to take love where they found it. Generals loved you. Corporals loved you. And all ranks in between. You offered hope and the gift of sexual possibility to the soldiers when death might be waiting for them the next week, the next day. And you were rightly honoured for your war efforts. There are statues in public squares to leaders who did much less.
My dad kept an old 78 rpm record of yours in his closet. I found it and your picture when I was clearing out his room in the Home. He didn’t take much with him when he moved from the house, only what was most important.
In that husky voice, whether you were wearing mannish clothes or a clinging silvery gown, you made love to us all when you sang.
Despite the crisp writing, and the important major themes that are broached, there are some drawbacks. Quite simply, there needed to be more letters in the book. They are easily one of the best aspects of the novel, but they are sprinkled sporadically and unevenly throughout the book; while they oscillate between adulation and venomous they are universally interesting. If Wyatt wanted to leave readers wanting to see more of them, then she was successful. Maybe another publication of the letters is forthcoming. Another criticism is that the book is relatively short and yet there are more than a dozen characters that receive considerable treatment. There are moments in the novel that their names, coupled with the intricacies of their specific plotlines, become overwhelming and somewhat confusing to keep straight. Wyatt could have written a longer novel and afforded some of the minor characters more space, or else not have woven quite so many storylines and minor characters together.
The novel’s shortcomings are relatively small and are not debilitating. Letters to Omar is a thoughtful and frank book that demonstrates Wyatt’s ample abilities as a first-rate novelist. The book focuses on the lives of mature women and they are central to the entire book – something not seen nearly enough in contemporary CanLit fiction. But the book is not exclusionary and the overall gender imbalance of the characters is welcomed. The richness of the development of the main characters will make them easy to identify with for all readers. Wyatt discusses some very relevant political and social issues without overwhelming the reader with her personal views. While some of the cultural references will likely appeal to more mature readers, I believe that the book could be read and enjoyed by readers in their late teens and beyond. There is no harm in needing to set aside a novel, Googling a term or individual, or asking someone for help in reference to past popular culture or political history. Celebrity did exist long before the rise of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga – amazingly to some of our youngest set. Letters to Omar is a fine novel and I highly recommend it for adult readers of all ages.