Instead of a Letter

Instead of a Letter is a nonfiction piece in which Diana Athill tells her life story from childhood to age 43. She starts out at her grandmother’s home, Beckton Manor, as the daughter of an upper-class British family that has lost most of its wealth. Athill narrates every detail of her life chronologically, starting with tutors, then moving to board school, on to Oxford, and finally to her various careers. Although she covers many topics in this book, one of her main interests was Paul, an Oxford student that she falls in love with at age 15. SPOILER ALERT: (I feel safe telling you this, since it is right on the back of the book) Athill eventually becomes engaged to Paul, but he breaks off the engagement in order to marry another woman. Most of the story consists of building up to the engagement, and the rest is her recovery from the rejection.

The best part about reading an autobiography is how well you get to know the protagonist/author. Athill hides nothing, showing both the good and bad in her life and letting the reader determine how to deal with it. Her open narration draws the reader in, and makes one certain that she is being totally honest. She also covers important and interesting topics, such as class differences in England and Christian religious values, as well as giving some beautiful descriptions (“All this is bathed in light and silence. It is silent in spite of the fishermen’s voices or the occasional grinding of a truck or taxi creeping round the edge of the bay to visit the hotel or the monastery, silent in spite of a donkey on the lower terrace calling to another donkey on the further mountain. The braying of donkeys–that painful, wheezing lionlike sound–might be the voice of rock, as the creaking of cicadas might be the voice of sun.”)

On the other hand, the worst part about reading an autobiography is how well you get to know the protagonist/author. Even though learning about Athill can be intriguing, sometimes she gives a little too much information. She is very blunt about her love life, and although I appreciated her honesty, she was too explicit for my tastes. Also, Athill tends to ramble. Especially towards the end, when I was expecting her to come to a brief resolution, she continued writing on various topics for a whole chapter that I had not seen coming.

I liked this book, but it wasn’t my favorite. I would recommend this to adults who are looking for an honest autobiography, and don’t mind if it lacks a strong plot. I am looking into another one of Athill’s memoirs, Somewhere Towards the End, which is supposed to be a humorous book about growing old; I’m hoping I will like this better, and I will make sure to let you know when I have finished!


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