No social media experience has ever felt quite so exciting to me as the earliest days of email. Before email, the internet felt like a largely arcane sidebar in my everyday life, and after email it was quickly normalised, but the moment of email itself came with a radically new and mysterious sense of possibility and connectivity. That same wonder percolates through You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s spiritual sequel to Sleepless in Seattle, which once again stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as star-crossed lovers communing from afar. They’re considerably closer this time around, however, since the magical-virtual space envisaged by Sleepless had been filled in by email by the late 90s, making this the first and best romance-by-email comedy. Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the proprietor of “The Shop Around the Corner,” a small children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side that is jeopardised by the arrival of Fox Books, a multimillion conglomerate headed by Joe Fox, played by Hanks. No surprise that Kathleen and Joe clash immediately when they meet, but the catch is they’ve actually already been flirting online for some time, under the pseudonyms of “Shopgirl” and “NY152” respectively.
What ensues plays out as three quite discrete acts, the first of which focuses on the furtive excitement of going online in these heady early days of email communication. In a wonderful opening monologue, Kathleen describes the addictive sense of connectivity, the romanticism of the early internet, and the way it all comes together when she hears that “You’ve Got Mail” – an announcement that propels her out into the city, through a montage sequence set to the Cranberries’ “Dreams.” It makes sense that Kathleen delivers this voiceover, and that she’s our main point of focus throughout the film, since Ryan has a perfect email-composing face and mannerisms – features always scrunched up as she talks aloud to herself, and rehearses the best ways to respond to NY152’s flirtations. As with Sleepless in Seattle, both Kathleen and Joe are already attached, meaning that Ephron continues to present virtual communication, and email communication, as somehow outside the realm of regular infidelity, since there’s no sense that Kathleen and Joe are cheating in these early exchanges.
Since romance has so often been a literary medium, 90s romcoms often reflected broader anxieties about the status of the printed word on the cusp of the new millennium. That connection is particularly pointed in You’ve Got Mail, which presents email as a new literary gesture – a medium of exchange and compromise that has restored literature, and the empathic function of literature, in the face of an emergent digital regime. At one point, Kathleen and Joe compare their email correspondence to that of George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, imagining email as a continuation of epistolary writing, and a return to a culture of letters. Yet the most pervasive point of reference is Pride and Prejudice, which Ephron effectively adapts for a millennial milieu, reframing the conflict between Darcy and Elizabeth as that of the small store owner in the face of big business. In Sleepless, Ephron frequently yearned for the romantic impediments of classical Hollywood cinema, and while that trend continues here – the entire film is a loose adaptation of The Shop Around the Corner – there’s a much greater focus on the romantic legacy of literature, and of bookstore culture.
Despite their sparring about the roles of small-scale and corporate bookstores in the real world, Kathleen and Joe thus affirm and continue the significance of literature through the email exchanges that comprise their digital lives. Time and again, their emails reflect their shared investment in the future of literature, regardless of the form it takes in the marketplace, and this also differentiates them, and finally divorces them, from their respective partners, who are both overly invested in older media. On the one hand, Kathleen’s fiancée Frank, played by Greg Kinnear, is fascinated by the radio, and only works on old typwriters. On the other hand, Joe’s girlfriend Patricia, played by Parker Posey, is a ditzy prin media fangirl, to the point where she comes on to Frank as soon as she learns he writes a newspaper column. By contrast, Kathleen and Joe are both more old-school and new-school than their original partners, affirming both the literary canon and its future longevity through the peculiar tenor of their email conversations, which are notably free of any sense of the interent as a distinct or sub-literary sociolect. There’s virtually no internet jargon anywhere in the film, which isn’t entirely unrealistic, if I remember how carefully I myself composed emails in those early days of the internet – more deliberately than any social media text since.
Still, these emails are all a little too airbrushed, exuding the same carefully composed immediacy as a good voiceover, which perhaps explains why they are so often used as voiceovers as the film proceeds towards its second act. At this point, the focus expands outwards from Kathleen and Joe’s individual conversations to the “piazza” styled literary spaces and cultures that emerged around email communication at this moment in time. Poised at that precise juncture when the internet café was just starting to be embedded in coffee stores and bookstores as an extension of material literary culture, the film is fascinated with franchises like Starbucks and Borders that managed to broker the possibilities of email into a new public sphere. Starbucks itself is front and centre for much of the film, while Joe’s own book empire, Fox Books, is clearly modelled on Borders, presenting itself as a hub of urban connectivity that Kathleen affirms through the sheer act of emailing, despite doing everything she can to oppose it in her conscious professional life. Not surprisingly, this connectivity with the literary urban environment is the biggest business imperative for Joe, who buys out an Upper West Side store specializing in books about New York architecture, and proposes a section in his own store dedicated to Upper West Side writers and literature.
While Kathleen can remain resistant from a distance, even she comes around when she first enters Fox Books, through a sublime sequence that takes her from the mezzanine to the internet café on the first floor, where her twin love of literature and the internet reach their apotheosis. This is the destination of the montage sequence that propels her out onto the streets of New York after opening her email in the first scene, and from here she embraces piazza culture as the nexus of literary and digital pleasure. While she’s certainly sad to close her store, this also provides her with the time and space to write her own book, which corresponds with her blooming romance and rapport with Joe, as the two come closer and closer to recognizing each other as email correspondents, and as digital soulmates. This ushers in the third act of You’ve Got Mail, which takes us back into the city, embedding piazza-style retail in the open air markets and plein air of an older New York, but simultaneously returns us to a kind of nineteenth-century literary interiority as well, most notably in a scene when Joe tends to Kathleen’s bedside after she is debilitated by a particularly bad head cold.
This last act is the most reminiscent of Sleepless in Seattle, since Ryan and Hanks’ love is somehow both impossible and already established. They already love each other, but can’t imagine loving each other, both knowing and not knowing that their real and virtual selves have finally converged. When they do eventually meet, at the 91st Street Garden, this “curve in the path” at Riverside Park fuses analog and virtual space in the most exquisite way, presenting them both with a counterfactual reality where they are no longer mortal enemies. As Joe turns the corner, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” marks this passage between fantasy and reality, as it did when Ryan first heard Hanks’ voice in Sleepless, and the film segues into a new kind of romantic irreality, or e-reality. For a brief moment, we see the couple together, and then the camera pans up, the screen slowly pixellates into white space, and “The End” comes up in computer writing, immersing us back within an email at the end of it all, in one of the most beautifully poised and plangent “endings” to any romantic comedy of the 1990s.