This is a moving and ultimately uplifting story based around the padlocks left on bridges as love tokens. I remember visiting Venice and seeing locks like this on the Rialto Bridge and thinking they were romantic. It had never occurred to me before what might happen if the bridge railings were filled with them. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might prove too many or they might cause structural damage to the bridge, due to their weight. In Upchester there are several bridges, immortalised in a famous boyband’s music video which showed them leaving padlocks on the bridge. Now their fans like to take pictures on the bridge and leave locks of their own in tribute to their favourites.
Mitchell is the man employed to deal with the padlocks if there are too many. He has his trusty bolt cutters to hand and clears the bridge of its love tokens. However, this hasn’t always been his job and there’s a reason the bridges are close to his heart. Mitchell is trained as an architect and had input in designing Upchester’s latest bridge. When he lost his wife Anita, he decided to leave for a job that would fit round his daughter Poppy’s school times. Poppy is 9 years and was used to living in the family’s country cottage with her Mum. Now she’s without Mum and living in her Dad’s city flat, the one he used to use when stuck in town for work. Poppy likes to be able to stand on her bed and peer at the stars through her skylight.
One particular day as Mitchell is nearing the bridge, he sees a young woman in a yellow dress. She stands out because she is so still when everyone else is bustling to and fro. In the next second she is gone and it takes a moment for Mitchell to realise she is in the water. He immediately dives in to rescue her, and when they reach the bank he’s exhausted. In the moments that follow he doesn’t get to speak to her or understand whether she jumped or fell. His main concern is Poppy who he’s now late for, so he makes his excuses and rushes to collect her from her music lesson. When he arrives at the music teacher’s house Poppy is calmly having some tea and while she finishes he makes uncomfortable small talk with Lisa, her teacher. Then he spots a photograph of three women and seems to recognise one of them. It’s a picture of Lisa with her two sisters. When Mitchell says that one of them was the girl in the yellow dress, Lisa is shocked. Her sister Yvette has been missing for a long time, yet Mitchell has seen her that afternoon. From that moment Mitchell is drawn into searching for Yvette alongside Lisa and against his better judgement. He soon learns that this is a family with a lot of secrets.
It might seem like Mitchell gives a lot to Lisa in helping her, but actually the help runs both ways. We realise that Mitchell is quite structured, even regimented, with Poppy. He schedules their days on paper stuck to the wall and Lisa softly makes fun of this part of his personality. Mitchell says it’s better for Poppy to have structure, but these plans are more for him than her. If you’re constantly busy there’s never time to think. Slowly, we realise that Mitchell has PTSD, but also feels enormous guilt about the last months of his relationship with his late wife. Lisa challenges this structure by not following a plan and going with the flow. When they visit her aunt there’s an impromptu sleep out next to a campfire. Mitchell is trying desperately not to freak out and once he has relaxed he starts to enjoy the experience. He needs easing out of his comfort zone, for Poppy’s sake as well as his own.
Letters are also a big theme in the novel. Mitchell spends a few moments in bed at night writing to his late wife. He tells her about his day, about Poppy but also about how sorry he feels for the way he was when they were together. When Mitchell was an architect he had an integral role designing a new bridge for the city. He’s a traditionalist and his favourite existing bridge is a simple red brick archway. There’s a new girl on the team though and she is a modernist, with a rival design for the bridge. Mitchell becomes threatened by her and starts to work longer hours, staying more at his city flat and missing out on family moments, such as Poppy taking part in a performance. He makes promises and doesn’t keep them. He takes his wife for granted and when she’s gone the guilt he feels is overwhelming. Lisa is trying to get Mitchell back into loving life and forgiving himself for the past.
Mitchell also starts to receive letters, thanks to his heroics on the bridge. A local journalist features the story in the paper and people start to write to this hero who has captured their imagination. Some simply congratulate him. Others are more personal, from people who are struggling with life and now have a outlet for their painful secrets. They tell him their secrets and he replies where he can. He finds the letters intrusive and asks the reporter to stop bringing them, but the change is actually positive. Slowly the letters make Mitchell open up more, he starts to move away from the list filled with hope and possibilities for the future.
This is a lovely, feel-good novel where the characters have such a beneficial effect on each other. I loved the themes of locks and letters. They give that sense of unlocking parts of ourself we’ve kept hidden, and possibly allowing others in. Grief can bring with it a fierce need to keep everything safe, so we lock emotions away, and regulate activities, removing any element of chance from our lives. This is what Mitchell has done, but not just for himself, but for Poppy too. He wants to keep her safe, but he’s actually stopping her from enjoying life to the full. Encountering Yvette was something Mitchell couldn’t control and like a key, she opens his life back up. This is such a hopeful book and such a cheerful lockdown read.