Today’s blog post is about Anita Kelly’s Something Wild and Wonderful. More specifically, it’s about the novel’s low moment. I don’t often analyze passages this close to the end of a book, and so I’m going to flag this up front for spoilers. If you haven’t read Something Wild and Wonderful yet: GO, read it now, and you can come back and read this post later. If you have read it, I want to get into exactly what makes the low moment of this book one of the most poignant, tear-jerking, yet hopeful things you’re likely ever to read. But first, here’s the cover and the blurb.
Alexei Lebedev’s journey on the Pacific Crest Trail began with a single snake. And it was angling for the hot stranger who seemed to have appeared out of thin air. Lex was prepared for rattlesnakes, blisters, and months of solitude. What he wasn’t prepared for was Ben Caravalho. But somehow—on a 2,500-mile trail—Alexei keeps running into the outgoing and charismatic hiker with golden-brown eyes, again and again. It might be coincidence. Then again, maybe there’s a reason the trail keeps bringing them together . . .
Ben has made his fair share of bad decisions, and almost all of them involved beautiful men. And yet there’s something about the gorgeous and quietly nerdy Alexei that Ben can’t just walk away from. Surely a bad decision can’t be this cute and smart. And there are worse things than falling in love during the biggest adventure of your life. But when their plans for the future are turned upside down, Ben and Alexei begin to wonder if it’s possible to hold on to something this wild and wonderful.
Cover image and blurb via the author’s website, where you can also find a list of content warnings for the book.
Ok. If you’ve read this far, that means either you don’t care about spoilers, or you’ve already read this book, and you know that the low moment of the story takes place when Ben and Alexei – who have fallen in love hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – have split up. Alexei has returned to the PCT alone, and the two are writing each other letters. There are 16 letters in this three-chapter epistolary section, written over a period of around two months. Ben writes six letters, all to Alexei, but sends only one of them. Alexei writes to Ben, to his sister, and to his Mom and Dad, both together and separately, for a total of 10 letters, of which he sends six. What I think makes these letters work so well is how they’re thematically related to the rest of the narrative, while still offering a critical shift – stylistically and emotionally – for the reader. So that’s what I’ll be looking at today!
“I just wanted to write it down” : setting up the low moment.
The first few chapters of the book foreshadow the importance of the epistolary low moment. From very early on, for example, we see that Alexei isn’t much of a talker. Many of his earliest exchanges with Ben happen in single-word exclamations (“Sinks!”) over things they’re excited to see on days off the trail. And even as the two men get closer, they often emphasize how much they appreciate each other’s quiet. There’s a real attention drawn to the choice of when and how to communicate, which makes the eventual decision to have the low moment communicated through letters feel more grounded.
The early parts of the story also underline the value of written communication. This is less the case for Ben, who is a voluble and easy talker, but even he does a fair amount of texting family and friends while he’s on the trail. Alexei, on the other hand, uses a journal, which we learn serves several purposes. One is to let him process his feelings silently- at one point he remarks of his journal that he “considered pen and paper talking. Words were involved. It counted.” More importantly, though, writing in his journal is a form of grief processing, as Alexei tries to grapple with the experience of estrangement from his homophobic family. In a particularly poignant scene, Alexei realizes he’s not going to be able to sleep until he writes down a question for his parents :
Maybe if he wrote the one thing – not a bullet point, but the words that lived inside him every minute – he could finally sleep.
He lifted his pen once more.
Do they miss me?
Alexei stared at the words, barely visible.
No. Not quite right.
There was a reason he wanted to write this, finally, today.
Alexei chewed the cap of his pen. He listened to Ben breathing. And then he fixed the question, made it closer to what his heart wanted to know.
Does it count if the person they miss isn’t actually me?
The way Alexei works on this sentence, iterating it until he gets it right, familiarizes the reader with writing as a way of processing emotion. Doing so early on is part of what lets his later letters – and their iterative style- feel like a natural way for Alexei to process his greif over possibly losing Ben.
“I finally have things I want to say to you now”: writing through change, changing through writing.
As expertly as the novel uses these letters to extend Ben and Alexei’s prior communication, the epistolary low moment also feels stylistically and formally set-apart. Often, when low moments fall short for me, it’s because they don’t show enough internal growth convince readers of the HEA. In the case of these letters, not only do we have two full months to see how Alexei and Ben have reflected and healed and changed, but we also get to feel that change through subtle stylistic shifts.
Perhaps the most obvious way these letters stand out is their switch from third person to first person POV. I don’t think that either POV is inherently more emotional or proximal to character: executed well, both first and third can be equally impactful. But something about the switch from “he” to “I” does draw the reader’s attention, indicating an altered depth and intimacy. I think it’s also worth mentioning that letters, in particular, use the past tense for actions (“I hitched here to Tahoe City with a woman named Jenn”) and the present tense for emotions (“It finally feels like the PCT is my desire line”) which underlines the immediacy of both men’s feelings.
Letters also allow for a slightly different structuring of their first-person prose, particularly compared to conversational dialogue (the only other the instance in the book where first-person is used significantly). While conversation in novels is considerably more polished than in real life, novelistic dialogue still needs to sound plausibly oral. No such stricture applies to letters, which can be self-consciously structured while holding on to the intimacy of the first person. There are so many stunning passages, and even single lines, in these letters, and part of what makes them work is that they can have a bit more deliberate prose structure to them. Take the example of this line, in a letter from Ben about Alexei’s visit to his family, that encapsulates the conscious stylistic reflection of the epistolary form:
I wish I had better words to say about all of it. And I’m not going to send this letter, either—I’m sorry I can’t make myself write a real letter to you; I can’t exactly explain it, but I’m still trying to be careful with my heart here, I still want to keep it intact from now on—but I just wanted to write it down. That I’m sorry. I’m sorry if being here was hard for you in any way. I’m so sorry your family left you, Lex. And I’m sorry I didn’t make it more clear. That my family would never replace yours. But they would’ve been yours, too. There are so many ways to find family.
The Caravalhos loved you, Lex. Some of them always will.
The first thing I love about this passage is how it shows Ben reflecting on the action of writing, while producing a complex and layered sentence that could probably only reasonably occur in written from:
And I’m not going to send this letter, either—I’m sorry I can’t make myself write a real letter to you; I can’t exactly explain it, but I’m still trying to be careful with my heart here, I still want to keep it intact from now on—but I just wanted to write it down.
Not only does writing about letter-writing draw the reader’s eye to what makes this section unique, it also emphasizes the importance of self-reflexion during the low moment. Ben’s longer-than-usual sentence about writing here is thus doubly impactful: it both tells and shows us how he’s taking more time to reflect and process his emotions.
The second half of the passage, though, is where things get really emotional. There’s a strong cadence to Ben’s variations on the central theme of regret: “That I’m sorry”/“I’m sorry if”/“I’m so sorry”/“And I’m sorry.” After that, the sentence fragments start to build on each other, to depend on each other, echoing the theme of a broken heart mending into more wholeness:
I just wanted to write it down. That I’m sorry.
And I’m sorry I didn’t make it more clear. That my family would never replace yours.
The Caravalhos loved you, Lex. Some of them always will.
While these fragments are stunningly rhythmic in their own right, I think what they do best is provide a contrast to allow certain single, full sentences to stand out. At the end of this passage, that’s the case for “There are so many ways to find family,” which – unlike other sentences in the paragraph- isn’t part of any repetition, referentiality, or juxtaposition. That this sentence can stand on its own outside of the passage reinforces its centrality.
“I keep hoping you’ll write me again”: reading unsent letters as witness.
Alongside their unique prose, one of the most impactful features of these letters is that some of them are marked, at the end, as unsent. The “unsent” tag serves several narrative purposes. In Ben’s letters to Alexei, it shows how Ben is guarding himself from heartbreak, working on the careful processing of feelings. In the case of Alexei’s letters to his parents, leaving them unsent allows Alexei closure without suggesting that he needs to ask for forgiveness or reconciliation in order to have it.
Beyond the reasons specific to individual characters, though, there’s still something deeply impactful about these unsent letters. Unsent letters are almost inherently melancholy, allowing readers on several occasions to reach the end of a heart-rending confession only to see that it was never read by its intended recipient. But I’m also intrigued by how the unsent letters between Ben and Alexei position the reader as a witness to their romance.
I think the best way to demonstrate this reader positioning is by considering one pair of letters. One is from Ben to Alexei, the other from Alexei to Ben, both are written on July 8th. That’s the only time two people write each other a letter on the same day, and it includes Alexei’s only unsent letter to Ben.
What struck me in looking at this pair of same-day unsent letters is how similar they are. Up until this point, Alexei and Ben’s letters have been fairly divergent. Alexei’s are lyrical and full of yearning; Ben’s one letter thus far has been angry and confused, full of short, clipped sentences. On July 8th, though, both men seem to be drawing closer to each other without realizing it. Take these two passages:
“I miss it, Lex. I think that’s part of what’s been hurting so much. You left me, like I probably always knew you would, but… you got to go back.
I lost you. But I lost the trail, too.”
“I’m so tired, Ben.
What if I die out here?
I don’t want to die out here.
I feel so far from God.
It’s made me realize how, even though we never really talked about my faith, you and me, how close I felt to it, while we were together. Like God had been hovering over me the whole time saying See? This is love. Like I love you. Do you understand?”
I love how these passages open so similarly, with a three-word sentence, a comma, and direct address. They’re also thematically related. Both men are grappling with the loss of a spiritual experience: the trail, for Ben; his faith, for Alexei. They also both, rather poignantly, seem to associate that spiritual experience with their partner. The manner of expressing this loss differs – Alexei recalls the presence of faith with Ben; Ben laments the absence of the trail with the loss of Alexei – but from opposite directions they’re both writing the same emotional experiences.
That, in itself, is poignant. It gives the reader hope for their reconciliation, how similar their grief is, even when they’re in opposition to each other. Reading how they work through these similar feelings, unbeknownst to each other, also puts the reader in a privileged space of witness. As the only ones who can see these subtle parallels, we’re asked do a bit of work that the characters’ can’t yet do: to process some of these feelings in their stead, waiting for the moment where they can do so together. I think it’s why reading this segment feels like a privilege, to me. Readers get to not only bear witness to emotion, but also to play an active role in its decoding. It’s a perfect distillation of why and how low moments work, and why I think this is truly one of the best-written low moments in romance. If you’ve made it this far and still haven’t read this book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.