Helen MacFarquhar, the owner of a small bookstore in a seaside town, seduces her customers with the written word as ably as Cathleen Schine woos her readers in The Love Letter. A practical, unsentimental sort, Helen is knocked momentarily off balance by the arrival of an anonymous love letter. Whether or not it's meant for her becomes beside the point; it opens the door for Johnny, a remarkably unsuitable college student half her age. As Helen and Johnny jostle and dance around each other, Schine interweaves their courtship with a love affair of a whole different sort that of readers and literature: ''It's terrible to be between books,'' Helen consoles one of her customers, and don't pretend you don't know what that feels like.
What Schine does as nimbly as any of the authors she pays homage to is define her characters' inner lives with one brilliant detail. Whether it's the customer who chooses novelist Fay Weldon instead of Rilke, or Helen's grandmother, who uproots herself so often that she knows her moving man, Schine introduces us to these people with a quick handshake. They're weird, but they're wonderful.
Ultimately, this being a tale of romance, tenderness abounds, from Helen's relationship with her daughter to Helen's mother's with her lover. But Helen (and Schine) are possessed of such razor-sharp wit that there's not an overwrought moment that needs to be wrung out. The only sadness in The Love Letter is that Schine does her job too well: As the characters fall for each other, we fall for them too, knowing that when the book is over, our relationship with them will end. A