One summer more than 20 years ago, a handsome stranger fell in love with Alexander Chee's letters—and traveleled across the country to meet him.

By Alexander Chee
Updated August 18, 2014
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The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

At the beginning of the summer 22 years ago, a man walked into the San Francisco bookstore where I worked, and as our eyes met and he walked to the counter, he looked as if he were going to tell me a joke.

He looked like James Dean’s younger, taller brother, and dressed like a character from a French film, with a white collared shirt, black sweater and jeans, and dark hair that floated up and wouldn’t stay down.

I’m looking for a novel, he said. The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson.

Of course you are, I thought.

This was my favorite novel at the time, and I said so as I walked him to the back of the store, where the W’s were. By the time we walked back to the front and I rang him up, we’d made a date for later, after I got off work.

The Passion is a slim trickster of a novel, told by two lovers—Henri, a young cook in Napoleon’s army’s kitchen, and Villanelle, a cross-dressing con artist and prostitute. Villanelle literally gives her heart away, and needs Henri’s help getting it back. This novel had thus far in my life been a lesson in the power of novels. It had remade my life—from the way I thought about my personal career aspirations to even my friendships. I had long, intense letter exchanges about The Passion with my friend Eliza, who lived in New York. A friend of a coworker of mine, she and I had become fast friends once we learned we both loved this book (she was writing her college thesis on it), and I found her to be a perfect correspondent, the two of us sending letters the length of short stories on writing and our love lives.

Having a handsome man ask me out after buying my favorite novel wasn’t just a dream come true but the dream I felt I deserved to have come true. And the newest gift of loving the novel.

My new admirer knew about all of this. He knew where I worked, that the novel was my favorite, and even had a copy already—buying the book had been a ruse to meet me. He was, he revealed, Eliza’s best friend in New York, and he told me about how she’d read my letters to him, and he had eventually just asked to read them himself. He was sweetly embarrassed to tell me this, but—this was better than the fantasy I’d thought had come true—he’d fallen for my writing first, and had come all this way for me.

We’d never have much more than that week. He returned to the East Coast, and while we met up some when I moved to the city later that year, we fell in love with other people and moved on. But I’ll always be grateful to him. A lot of things made me a writer, and not the least was the night of that beautiful lesson, when I understood the writer he wanted to find that day was me.

About the Author
Alexander Chee is the author of the novel Edinburgh ($13.50, and the forthcoming The Queen of the Night (