A Couple of Semi-Epistolary Novels

The epistolary novel has a long history. I’ve read some classics, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. And I’ve enjoyed more recent versions, like Jaclyn Moriarity’s wonderful YA novel The Year Of Secret Assignments (Finding Cassie Crazy in its native Australia), a collage of diary entires and e-mails, notes, and letters exchanged by the characters.

Some of Jane Austen’s early work is epistolary, and scholars believe that Pride and Prejudice began life that way. Letters remain important in Austen’s fiction–particularly the pivotal and swoon-worthy epistles from Darcy to Elizabeth, and from Wentworth to Anne in Persuasion.

Epistolary fiction allows for multiple points of view without the mediating voice of an omniscient narrator. It can thus create a sense of intimacy with the characters. I think that immediacy is why it’s a fairly popular device in contemporary YA fiction.

But there’s a trade-off. Such novels also lack a narrator who can fill in information, which can sometimes lead to awkward exposition (aka “info-dumping”) that wouldn’t be in a real letter or diary entry. And an omniscient narrator’s own point of view adds something. It’s hard to imagine Pride and Prejudice without its acerbic, ironic narrative voice. No one would write “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” in a letter. Not even Austen.

Recently I read a pair of novels that I expected to be epistolary, but that actually had their cake and ate it too by blending e-mails, diary entries, and passages of third-person narration: Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, reviewed by Jayne at Dear Author; and Barbara Hannay’s Molly Cooper’s Dream Date, mentioned by Sunita in the comments on Jayne’s review, and reviewed by SuperWendy at The Good, the Bad and the Unread.

Rowell’s book isn’t exactly a romance. There’s a very satisfying romance plot, but it also has a chick/lad-lit feel (a bit like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity with the woman’s point of view included). Beth and Lincoln don’t speak until the last few pages of the novel; both have a lot of growing to do–and in Beth’s case a boyfriend to dump–before they’re ready to meet. Lincoln seems like a classic nerd: he’s shy and awkward, plays D & D, lives with his mom, and works nights as an IT security guy for a newspaper. He’s still not over the highschool girlfriend who dumped him nine years before, and has no idea how to talk to other women or “make them fall in love with him.” Part of his job is reviewing e-mails that get red-flagged by the paper’s security system, and that’s how he finds himself falling for Beth: the voluminous e-mails she exchanges with her work friend Jennifer end up in the security folder, and reading them, he’s drawn to this kind, funny, vibrant woman.

Given all this, Lincoln (whose sections of the novel are told by a third-person narrator deep in his point of view) could come off as a creepy stalker. It’s to Rowell’s credit that he doesn’t. She shows us the sweet, thoughtful guy beneath the nerdy surface, and as he gains confidence and ventures into the world, we see he’s not as big a loser as he paints himself. He’s also genuinely torn about reading Beth’s e-mails (he never sends the women the form warning he should), something that makes a relationship between them seem impossible even as it makes him want one. The novel is funny and charming, but with some serious reflection on what it means to be truly grown up. High Fidelity’s a pretty good comparison, actually, and I consider that high praise.

Hannay’s book, a Harlequin Romance, is slighter–it can hardly help it, being a lot shorter–but also funny and charming. Molly and Patrick swap houses. She’s always dreamed of life in glamorous London; he wants a break from his banking job to write a novel, and Molly’s tropical Australian island seems the ideal place. A good chunk of the novel is told through the e-mails they exchange while they live in each other’s houses (like Beth and Lincoln’s, it’s an oddly intimate relationship with a stranger) and their diary entries, with brief third-person narration framing the story.

Molly is one of those heroines that seem to pop up a lot in Harlequins: bright and sunny, she’s in her mid-twenties but sometimes seems a lot younger. I found her kind of unrealistic, but then I thought of my cheerful twenty-something colleague with her office full of stuffed toys and her tweets about Fraggles and cupcakes and thought, not everyone is as cynical and world-weary as I was at 25 (in case she’s reading this, let me just say that my colleague also has a PhD, a lot of professional accomplishments, and is an excellent teacher, even if she is the kind of person who dumps pregnant cats on people). Despite her “manic pixie dream girl” edge, Molly seems a more fully realized character than uptight banker Patrick, perhaps because she puts more of herself into her e-mails and diary.

With less third-person narration than Rowell, Hannay did sometimes lapse into awkward exposition. Both Molly and Patrick narrate a lot of things in their journals that most people would probably just react to. (But journal entries are awkward in real life, too: who’s the audience? How much explanation does s/he need?) And Patrick, in particular, sometimes sounds not quite human: “Now Molly has sent me the strongest possible negative messages–not with words but through her actions,” he writes in his journal. Seriously? No wonder he had a hard time starting his novel.

Despite these glitches, though, I found Molly and Patrick such nice people that I was happy to see them get together at last. And like Beth and Lincoln in Rowell’s novel (though to a lesser extent, given the compressed word count) they were changed by their adventures and by their epistolary encounter with each other.

Most of all, I enjoyed the experiments in story-telling the epistolary form involves: how do you get something across without a narrator to do it? What works and what doesn’t? How do different people view the same event?

Have you got a novel in letters–or other documents–to recommend?

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10 Responses to A Couple of Semi-Epistolary Novels

  1. Amy Kathryn says:

    Something about reading a novel written in this way brings me a lot of pleasure. I don’t know if it is because letter writing has fallen by the wayside and I have never been one to keep a journal.

    I really liked Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia Wrede. If I remember right, there is definitely a sequel and maybe a trilogy of novels told mainly by letters between cousins. For nonfiction, I liked Letters from Julia (Child).

    • lizmc2 says:

      I can’t believe I forgot Sorcery and Cecilia! That one actually began as a “letter game” between the authors, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, where each took the part of one of the heroines.

      You made me wonder whether the letters/e-mails/diaries in contemporary epistolary novels feel somewhat unrealistic because people no longer think of letter or journal writing as a literary art. So when you get them fancied up to work in a novel, they don’t feel quite real. My friend is doing a dissertation on some Renaissance letters and they are carefully crafted rhetorical performances. E-mail is seldom so considered.

  2. Amy Kathryn says:

    It makes me shudder to think of future generations reconstructing our lives from you tube videos, facebook posts, and emails. So many authors and historians credit people’s letters and journals with providing a sense of place and time. Of course, you are dependent on the reliability of the author so maybe the everything goes nature of our current way of documenting life may be more accurate!

    I was reading Americans in Paris recently and there were a lot of excerpts from letters the travelers had written to loved ones back home. They were so descriptive and perceptive. I felt so very inadequate as a correspondent. It was an artform.

    I couldn’t get into Attachments and the same may be true for Molly (I want to try it). I didn’t understand why at the time since I love the epistolary format but your comment above has given me a thought. It may be because the epistolary communication in those novels is so modern day and realistic that it doesn’t seem special or romantic to me.

  3. Carl Schmitt says:

    There’s a rather interesting blog over at http://www.unseasonablethoughts.blogspot.com that might qualify. It’s semi-epistolary – this guy “C” writes poetry, essays (jeez! what essays) and shares from letters and emails to his “M”. Touching, quirky, and erudite.

  4. VacuousMinx says:

    Have you read Almost Like Being in Love, by Steve Kluger? It’s a wonderful gay romance, combining letters, emails, news articles, and other stuff. Available in print and e.

    The classic is Les Liasons Dangereuses, right? I read that years ago.

    I have trouble feeling immersed in epistolary novels a lot of the time, but when they work, they’re amazing. The first part of Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly is epistolary, and it really packs a punch.

  5. I highly recommend Possession by A.S. Byatt and Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson. Both wonderful.

    Possession is a pastiche of letters, journals, fairy tales, poetry, academic writing, and omniscient narration, taking place both in the 1980s and in the 1860s, as two academics investigate the love affair of two Victorian poets. It combines elements of multiple genres,including romance.

    Madensky Square is written entirely in the form of a journal and set in 1912 Vienna. The main character is a dressmaker as well as the mistress of a married man, and trying to recover from a tragedy in her past. If that makes it sound dour, it isn’t — Susanna, the narrator, is both resilient and witty.

    To a lesser degree, I also remember enjoying Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish (a romance between a vicar and a married woman in a mid-Victorian English village — LOL, adultery is emerging as a theme in my post!) , which intersperses journal entries with close third person POV, Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy (a romance set in Victorian England), which begins with a few letters, and Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine trilogy (less for the story and more for the artwork in this pop-up book for grownups). Oh, and the correspondence at the beginning of Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly was also wonderful.

    I’m probably forgetting something.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Possession is one of my absolute favorite books. And I have enjoyed many of Ibbotson’s children’s books, but not yet tried a romance. Hmm . . . if both you and Sunita recommend My Sweet Folly, I should try it. I haven’t found a Kinsale that really works for me yet. Thanks for the recommendations!

      • Possession is one of my absolute favorite books.

        Mine too! I love the richness of it.

        Madensky Square isn’t precisely a romance, but it is Ibbotson’s most mature novel. Unlike her romances, which have young heroines, Madensky Square has a heroine who is 36. Over a decade ago I reviewed it for AAR. You can find the review at the following link: http://likesbooks.com/cgi-bin/bookReview.pl?BookReviewId=3468

        My Sweet Folly isn’t among my most favorite Kinsales but the opening section with the correspondence is quite possibly the best opening of any romance. I didn’t feel the rest of the book lived up to it, but even a less stellar Kinsale beats most other romances for me. Which of her books have you read?

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