I’ve just finished reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. I was drawn to this because it’s an epistolary novel – I know you know what that means, but just in case you don’t it’s a novel made up of fictional documents, such as letters, diary excerpts, emails, news clippings, that kind of thing. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea (my supervisor on the Masters hates them, which is why I’m not writing one myself for my dissertation). But I LOVE them. It got me thinking about my favourite epistolary novels, and what it is that I think works so well.
Dracula is probably one of the most famous epistolary novels, written in diary entries and letters and fictional newspaper articles. I read it years ago, and I loved the whole concept even before I understood that it was a technique used by lots of different writers. The other notable novel that springs to mind for me is Carol Shields’ A Celibate Season. An absolutely brilliant book, it was written in collaboration with author Blanche Howard, and is made up entirely of letters between a man and wife separated because of work commitments for ten months. This book is fantastic, and I would recommend it to anyone. Like most works of genius, it seems so simple, but there is such a craft involved in structuring these letters so that the reader feels the building pressure this couple are subjected to during their self-imposed separation. What’s very clever is that at no point do you feel the loss of direct narrative – for example, a weekend visit home which has been longed for on both sides is viewed by the reader only via the letters sent after the event. You’d think this would be frustrating, but it isn’t at all. It’s brilliant, and as a writer I want to understand how these two award-winning authors managed to achieve this feat.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is also very good – Semple uses the range of documents in a clever way, and the story is engaging and full of twists and turns – but there are flaws, in my humble opinion. The voices of the various characters that come out of the different documents – emails, faxes, letters, instant messages, blog posts etc – aren’t nearly as differentiated as they perhaps should be. It’s not a problem that the author’s voice comes through loud and clear – Semple is a brilliantly funny writer – but as you’re reading you do notice the lack of difference in what should be really varied textual sources. The other problem occurs when the story changes to first person direct narrative – most of the last quarter of the book is written this way, in the voice of the daughter. It jars a little after such variety. Semple could have got around this by structuring the narrative as diary entries, which would have made it more in line with what came before. That aside, it’s a great read so do give it a try.
So, why do I love epistolary novels so much? I think it’s because of the extra layer of authenticity it gives. It’s the same reason I love any novel with a framing device – Anita Shreve’s Strange Fits of Passion is written as the account of a reporter visiting the daughter of a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband. She has compiled a feature on the young woman’s mother, and we are effectively reading that feature, including interviews and her research, along with the daughter. It works so well, really drawing you in to the story. Going back to the gothic novels, Frankenstein is also written this way, with the entire book being told as the account of a man writing to his sister and recounting to her Victor Frankenstein’s story.
I’m starting to compile a list of contemporary novels with epistolary elements – that is, at least a large proportion of the narrative written this way – and I’d like your help. If you’ve read a novel of letters, or diary entries, or using other textual devices, please pop a comment in the box below. I’m particularly interested in anything written after 1940, but earlier novels are fine too. Here is what I have on my list so far:
- 84, Charing Cross Road: Helene Hanff
- Attachments: Rainbow Rowell
- Bridget Jones’s Diary: Helen Fielding
- Carrie: Stephen King
- A Celibate Season: Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
- The Color Purple: Alice Walker
- The Divorce Papers: Susan Rieger
- The Documents in the Case: Dorothy L. Sayers
- Ella Minnow Pea: Mark Dunn
- The Guestbook: Holly Martin
- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: Fannie Flagg
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Mary Ann Shaffer
- Love, Rosie (Where Rainbows End): Celia Ahern
- My Most Excellent Year: Steve Kluger
- The People in the Photo: Hélène Gestern
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Paul Torday
- The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4: Sue Townsend
- We Need To Talk About Kevin: Lionel Shriver
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Maria Semple
Really looking forward to reading your comments on epistolary novels 🙂