Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: June 13th 2017
In the present Kate’s father is succumbing to dementia. As his memory flickers on and off, she wants to give his life’s work meaning and so takes his enormous and beloved stamp collection to an appraiser to see if any of the stamps are valuable. In the past, Kristoff is an orphaned artist working as an apprentice for the renowned master stamp engraver, Frederick Faber. It’s Austria, 1938 and Faber is Jewish, but Kristoff is not. When the Nazis arrive he must find a way to protect both Faber’s work and the man himself. With these two incongruent lives, Jillian Cantor’s The Lost Letter takes one of the smallest conduits of communication, the stamp, and turns it into the centerpiece of a story of resistance and love.
Kate has no expectations about her father’s collection—something he’s amassed from garage sales and thrift stores throughout his life so she is surprised when the appraiser calls her with news. He has found a letter from Austria that has never been opened and has an un-cancelled stamp. This combination makes the letter intriguing and Kate uses its mystery to avoid dealing with the facts of her own life. She wants to find the Fraulein Faber to whom it is addressed. Now, Cantor begins to weave the threads of The Lost Letter into cloth. Back in Austria, the Faber family has been split apart by the Germans and Kristoff has been commissioned to take over Frederick’s work and create a brand new stamp to commemorate the glory of the Third Reich. At the same time, he is falling in love with Frederick’s daughter, Elena, who is hiding in the house and who wants to use her skills as an engraver and Kristoff’s position of safety to create false documents for Jews trying to escape.
Cantor balances the immediate dangers of Kristoff’s life with the quieter emotional trials Kate goes through with her father’s failing health and her failed marriage. As her investigations bring more of the past to light, Cantor heightens the tension and tightens the bonds between the past and the present, until, at three-fourths of the way through the novel, there is a significant plot twist. I have mixed feelings about this, but give credit to Cantor for keeping it concealed until the reader is thoroughly invested. I felt the drama of resisting the Nazis and saving lives using something as tiny and inconsequential as a stamp gave The Lost Letter all the power it needed, but for some the additional plot will enhance the novel. Either way, it is still a well-written story about a new-to-me aspect of World War II. Worth reading.