Epistolary novels are a hard thing to pull off well, I think. The author has to create unique voices for two or more characters so that the letters don’t all sound the same, and they have to be able to find a way to explain and describe events that happen “off-screen” in such a way that it doesn’t feel like two people who lived the events describing them to each other in a letter.
Because, really, who does that? Who
Carlene Bauer has managed to pull off what might just be the best epistolary novel I’ve read since The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.Frances and Bernard
is loosely based on the real life friendship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, but don’t feel like you need to know much about the two in order to enjoy this book. I knew very little about these two authors before going in. I’ve read many of their works, I knew that Lowell struggled with mental illness, that O’Connor died rather young, but precious little about their biographies or relationship. This book may have used Flannery and Robert as a touching-off point, but it works beautifully as its own independent little creature.
Novelist Frances and poet Bernard meet at a writer’s retreat in the late 50s. Bernard reaches out to Frances for conversation afterward, and the two continue to exchange letters for most of the next decade. Their relationship gradually becomes more and more complicated as professional allegiances, competing relationships, and Bernard’s psychological struggles come into play.
There’s some religious discussion in here – their initial conversations are based on a common interest in Catholicism – but it never feels like Bauer or her characters are hitting you over the head with dogma. I say that as a reader who’s pretty adverse to dogma in her fiction. This had just enough to give me a sense of the characters and some things to chew over without feeling like I was being hit over the head with a rosary.
The reason this book succeeded so well for me is how well-developed Frances and Bernard were. They both felt so real to me, as though I really were reading letters from people who had actually lived. They come to care a great deal about one another and the complexity of their relationship never came across as melodramatic – the fact that they are both successful literarians allows their letters to feel genuine and not over-the-top. The brevity of the book helped – Bauer doesn’t let the letters become bogged down in details that the characters wouldn’t naturally share with each other in this context, and yet it is easy to fill in the off-page action. Some exposition is provided by letters to additional characters peppered throughout, giving the reader additional insight into the intricacies of the central relationship without coming across too heavy-handed.
I loved this book. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in epistolary novels, the lives of literary giants, the writing process, the sixties, religion, mental illness, or just an engaging, well-written story.