Obsessive love in the time of email

The epistolary novel, which consists of letters exchanged between two or more people, is one of the earliest novel forms and is successful for two main reasons. One, it appeals to the voyeur in us; it is a rare person who at some time or other hasn’t had the insane urge to read someone else’s correspondence, hoping to come across juicy stuff like gossip, love, romance or sexually explicit yearnings.

Two, it absolves the writer of having to be grammatically correct or stylistically polished; everything that is written purports to be from the pen of a character instead of from the pen of the novelist, and so any literary flaws can be excused by saying, ‘that’s the way the character writes’.

“Love Virtually” is an epistolary novel that happily exploits both these advantages, but it is nonetheless a novel with a difference. It is unusual not only because the letters exchanged between the protagonists are emails (which lends them far greater immediacy than if they had been pen-and-ink efforts), but also because it reverses the normal development of the hero and heroine meeting, falling in love and writing letters. Here, Emmi and Leo write letters, fall in love and then make elaborate plans to meet.

The story begins with Emmi Rothner trying to cancel her subscription to Like magazine, but inadvertently keys in ‘Leike’ instead of ‘Like’. Her message goes to Leo Leike, who responds and, well, one letter leads to another and the next thing we know is that the two are speedily and steadily falling passionately in love with each other. The emails fly thick and fast between them, sometimes more than 25 a day, sometimes not more than 15 seconds apart. One wonders how they manage to have a life off their computers, and the answer is they don’t. Emmi is a supposedly ‘happily married’ woman with two step-children she accepts and loves as her own, a circle of friends and a career as a website designer. And yet, when she doesn’t hear from Leo for a day (during which she’s been travelling to the Tyrol to pick up and bring home from a weekend holiday her suddenly ill husband), she has a panic attack: “You occupy my thoughts twenty-four hours a day. Why won’t you write to me? Should I be worried?”

Although Emmi is the main driver of the relationship, nagging Leo to write, pursuing him with her neediness, pouring out her heart to him, teasing him with erotic suggestions, Leo is no slouch when it comes to the heavy breathing: “Here’s a kiss. And another kiss. And another kiss. And another. Whoever you are. I long to be close…I want to kiss Emmi…Let’s go to bed, Emmi.”

Fascinating stuff. Pandering as it does to all that’s prurient in the reader, this novel is as much a study of two people sharing an obsessive compulsive disorder as it is a love story. And the suspense that takes the reader panting to the last page is heightened by the question that’s endlessly and titillatingly raised throughout the book: Is a non-virtual, physical meeting of the two actually on the cards? Will they or won’t they? Does anybody know for sure? Guess.

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