Missed Connections is a sweet and heartwarming memoir, told in the form of letters. In 1992, as a university student, Brian Francis placed a personals ad in the local paper. Almost 30 years later, he comes across 13 responses to his ad that he never answered, and decides to pen the answers to them from the perspective of his older, more experienced self. The result is a moving coming-of-age story, about a young man in the process of coming out as gay, dealing with the effects of his conservative small town upbringing, and his earnest and wholehearted search for love.
I’m a huge fan of Francis’ novels, and it was a nice jolt of recognition to see some of the themes and events from his fiction explored as fact here. A letter that talks about his struggles with body image and the social stigma from being overweight is a nice call-back to his young adult novel Fruit; there’s even a passing reference in the letter to imagining his nipples being able to talk, which, of course, is the entire premise behind Fruit. Some of the letters detail his complicated relationship with his mom — a letter reveals how she made his coming out all about her in rather dramatic fashion, and yet a later letter talks about how they reconnected before she died, in that highly emotional, complex way that isn’t quite a happy ending, yet still brims with love. Long-time readers of Francis will recognize shades of his Stone Angel-like novel Natural Order, and its captivating, complicated protagonist, Joyce. Francis has always demonstrated a gift for writing multilayered, textured, practically living and breathing human beings in his fiction, and seeing some of the elements from those stories from the perspective of the author himself recounting his life, adds even more layers of nuance and emotional depth.
Francis also creates an intriguing cast of characters through the letter exchanges. While the original 13 letters form the basis for the book, the author clarifies in the afterword that he has fictionalized aspects of the letters, removing identifying details and making the text his own, while still trying to be true to the personalities and styles of the letter writers. (To be honest, this made me feel better, because I was somewhat uncomfortable with publishing the original letters as-is, without the writers’ consent, no matter how unlikely it would be to actually identify any of them.) Possibly as a result of Francis’ hand, the letter writers all come across as earnest as he does.
The letters, then, are less one-way responses than dialogues, and while each letter-response pairing is its own self-contained vignette, there’s a central theme of uncertainty and raw vulnerability that runs throughout. We get a sense, not just of the author himself navigating the complex world of dating as a gay man in the 90s, before same-sex marriage was legalized, and in a small town where homosexuality still made people uncomfortable, but also of the 13 other gay men navigating that world alongside him. There’s a letter writer who asks not for a response, but rather for a meet-up in a public place within a five minute window on a particular date. Within the strict confines of that letter writer’s request is a very real desire for plausible deniability, and very careful planning to create means of escape at the slightest hint that things won’t go as planned. Another letter writer provides the author with a code, requesting that Francis post a new ad with his phone number written in that code. Again, the desire for secrecy, and the lengths to which this writer goes to try to guarantee his safety, are telling. Such letters colour the readings of even the more lighthearted letters, and as the letters gradually build on each other, they form an increasingly more complex picture.
Perhaps most telling are the letters that prompt Francis to reveal his own vulnerabilities. In response to an early letter from a man who jokes about being good-looking, Francis admits he’s actually seen the writer on campus, and the writer is indeed as handsome as he promises. Unfortunately, the writer’s good looks trigger Francis’ insecurities about his own, and as Francis explains why he never quite gathered the courage to respond to this letter, you can feel the regret and the compassion he feels for his younger self, and it all just makes you want to give his younger self a hug.
I first heard of Missed Connections when it was a stage show called Box 4901 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in early 2020. I remember wanting to watch it then, partly because I’m a fan of Francis’ writing, and also partly because I’m a fan of some of the performers reading the letters (Jeff Ho, who had a one-man play Trace at Factory Theatre, and who played Ophelia in Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet; and Colin Asuncion, who competed in The Great Canadian Baking Show). I never quite got to see the stage show, so I’m beyond glad that McClelland and Stewart published the book version. It’s a beautiful memoir, and one that prompts us to reflect: given the chance, what would we say to our younger selves?
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.