An anonymous admirer in Cape May, a perplexed widow and her two curious daughters is the unlikely start of a mystery turned romance in "The Girl in His Dreams."
While the plot sounds like the stuff of fantasies, for Cumberland County author Terri Ely, some of the novel is based on a true story.
“The whole story begins with, actually my mother, but ‘Rosemarie’ in the book,” said Ely, who will be signing her book on Sunday at the Cape May Chili and Chowder Cook Off.
Ely changed the character names of their real-life counterparts, but the story — in real life and in the novel — launched when her 82-year-old mother started receiving anonymous birthday cards without a postmark.
The first letter, which arrived on her birthday, simply had ‘I love you,’ in shorthand.
The elderly Haddonfield widow recognized the short-hand, having taken a business class in Philadelphia as a young girl. Yet, she couldn’t make out who the card was from and considered that it might be a joke
The following year, she received another anonymous, printed letter that said, ‘Happy Birthday Kid, I can call you ‘kid’ because I’m nine days older than you.” The third letter blew everything “sky-wide,” said Ely, as the letter was postmarked from Cape May. The final letter explained that the mysterious admirer had loved her mother since 1926.
“That part is absolutely true," said Ely. “My sister and I are both romantics so we really got caught up in it."
Ely and her sister spent a year trying to find the mystery man and when they did, he explained how he fell in love with their mother when he was a teenager, attending business school.
Now a widower himself, the man had never spoken to Ely's mother when they were in school together.
“For a while, after they graduated, he still thought of her for a few years and then lost track of her and went on with his life," she said, noting that the man, who is called 'Charles' in the book, went on to marry and have his own family, as did her mother.
After losing his own wife Ely said on a "whim" he must have decided to contact her mother thinking he had nothing to lose.
The book takes readers through scenes of Cape May, the discovery of the mysterious widower and author of the birthday cards, 'Charles,' and an unlikely romance that ensues.
Other parts of the book draw on real-life events and also include other grand, romantic gestures by the sentimental 'Charles.'
In real life, Ely kept notes of the unfolding events. When her mother died at 95, Ely started to work on the novel. The book took her 10 years to write and the ending may be surprising to readers.
“It’s a feel-good book," she said "Today when we’re all wired up with all these crazy things happening. It’s out of the norm and the fact that it’s based on a true story just makes it fun, and enjoyable.”