A Review of
The Words Between Us: A Novel
Reviewed by Maria Lehr
When Erin Bartels opened her novel The Words Between Us with a father described as a monster, a sentencing of execution, and a mysterious package from the past, I knew this book would be a journey of intrigue, suspicion, and complicated relationships. Include an interesting mix of characters and a wily old parrot named “The Professor” and my curiosity is sufficiently piqued.
The story of Robin Windsor is told by chapters both “now” and “then.” The past and the present are expertly woven together by Bartels to slowly unravel the life of Robin – one that is filled with mystery, trauma, love, and loss. The events of Robin’s present retell her past and force her to face once again the life she tried so hard to escape for over a decade. When you first meet present day Robin Windsor, she is the owner of a struggling bookstore, mostly a social recluse with the exception of her employee Dawt Pi and is attempting to hide from the sins of her parents which receive national attention making anonymity difficult. She seems tired and defeated. Then the first book arrives.
Bartels flashes the reader back to the past, where you first meet Robin “Dickinson,” our heroine’s younger high school self, who has just been sent to live with her estranged grandmother following the sudden incarceration of both her parents. Robin’s life has spun into chaos that is far beyond her control. Nothing is fair. Her entire life has been ripped from her grasp and due to the public nature of her parent’s incarceration, she attempts to hide her identity. She even goes so far as to change her last name. She is lost and alone until she meets Peter Flint and his mother’s books.
Erin Bartels’s debut novel,
We Hope for Better Things
For a time, Robin attempts to live a somewhat normal life in Sussex, Michigan – enduring her grandmother, developing a relationship with Peter and pouring into the books that provide her an outlet from her realities. She even starts to make progress on her relationship with her mother. But after a trip to the penitentiary to visit her leaves Robin with more questions than answers, her life starts to unravel again. Her grandmother dies and her identity is compromised. She blames Peter for her sudden exposure. After leaving him a letter, Robin spends the next ten years hiding from her past and letting it consume her future. Bartels guides you through Robin’s transformation, and as she does, themes of forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation continue to evolve.
True to its title, The Words Between Us, words are indeed what binds this whole story together. What this novel leaves behind for each reader to consider is the power of the spoken and written word. In the troubled days of her youth, Robin, like so many of us, finds solace in books. Her relationship with Peter, perhaps the most important relationship of her life, starts as an exchange of books. Peter gives Robin a book and Robin writes a poem as payment. Not only do these words forge the connection between these two characters but they provide an escape for Robin away from the reality of her life. Years later, when Peter is unsure how to reach out to Robin, he turns once again to books, the written words of novels and poems, to help heal their great divide.
A pivotal moment in this story is the letter that Robin leaves Peter after a reporter has discovered her identity and she prepares to escape from Sussex, blaming Peter for her exposure. Rather than confront Peter in person, Robin intentionally chooses to give him a letter. She wants to leave him words that cut a wound so deep and permanent it will not fade. Robin knows the power of the written word and uses it to her advantage. However, as more secrets are uncovered throughout the novel, you can’t help but wonder how much regret and misunderstanding can the written word leave behind? Or perhaps more importantly, words left unspoken? For years there are so many words left unsaid between many of these characters that the reader can almost feel the unspoken words between them and yearn for them to be given breath.
For a moment it was hard to grasp that a character who went almost ten years without any forward movement on the reconciliation of her past, and instead just harbored feelings and assumptions, made such a quick turn toward redemption. But again, perhaps this highlights the severity of words spoken too soon but also words left unspoken for too many years.
One of my favorite parts of this story was experiencing a variety of classic novels again through the eyes of Robin Windsor – The Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. Haven’t we all read these classics at such young ages and sought to find ourselves within the pages just as Robin did? We lose ourselves in the stories and find solace with the characters. While at first these novels may offer an escape from our real world, they are actually instilling us with life lessons, experiences and heroes we can rely on as we grow older – just like they did for Robin. I am thankful to Bartels for the reminder that some books are timeless and span across history to create our literary heritage. Bartels does a fantastic job of paying homage to these authors.
An additional highlight were the poems that Robin writes and gives to Peter as payment for the books. These poems are Robin’s personal reflections and interpretations of each novel she reads. Perhaps a poetry book should be next for Bartels because these poems were beautiful and distinctive. To summarize some of these lengthy novels in a few short, but well-chosen words could not have been an easy task but were a pleasant surprise.
Another strength of this novel is that Bartels used her hometown of Bay City, Michigan as the basis for River City, the main setting for the novel. This was obvious in the way she describes the town with its unique bridges and river life. The Words Between Us is the second novel for Bartels, and I hope we see more of her elegant prose and meaningful stories.
Overall, I found this book to be wonderfully written and appreciated the way the book was crafted together with the dual story line. Bartels does an excellent job of placing the twist and turns of this story at just the right moments to keep you curious.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com