I’ve always been intrigued by authors who use the unique narrative format of the epistolary novel—telling the story through the use of fictional letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, emails, and other documents. For this week’s Tuesday Ten, I’ve put together a list of my nine favorite novels written using this technique—and one nonfiction book made up of letters that reads like a novel. (It’s my list, and I can break the rules if I want to, right?) I own copies of all of these and have read most of them many times. Some are recent, and a some were published decades ago. Ready? Here’s my list, in no particular order:
1. The Fan by Bob Randall
This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller brilliantly told through a series of letters, memos, telegrams (yes—telegrams!) and other correspondence. The main character is an aging (she would HATE being referred to as “aging!) Broadway star who begins receiving a series of innocent fan letters—letters that slowly turn more and more menacing as time goes on. The author does an excellent job of keeping the reader in suspense as police try to zero in on the writer of the letters before he can make actual personal contact with his target. Again, this is all brilliantly done through a narrative solely made up of notes and other fictional documents. If you like a great mystery with lots of twists, give this one a try!
2. A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
Told mostly through letters from the main character—a headstrong and independent-minded woman born in the late 1800s—this novel tells not only the story of this woman’s life, but also the story of a changing America. Bess Steed Garner is portrayed as a woman who, from the very earliest of age, knows exactly what she wants—in love, in business, in leisure—and knows what she needs to do to get it. I didn’t always like this character, but I always admired her. This is not only an incredible character study, but also a wonderful portrait of everyday American life through the twentieth century. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough!
3. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This is one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time. Told through a series of letters from a woman to her estranged husband, it’s the story of her relationship with their teenaged son—who is also the murderer of nine students and staff members at his high school. It’s also the story of a woman who is wrestling with the idea that marriage and motherhood may have been a mistake for her from the beginning—and the idea that her feelings of actual dislike for her son may have driven him to commit the horrific crimes. I can’t say that this is an enjoyable read, but it is a compelling one.
4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
OK, OK . . .this one isn’t a novel—it’s nonfiction. I know it’s a series of real letters between a real writer in New York City and the real staff of a used bookstore in London during WWII. But I had to include it here because, honestly, it reads like a novel of the very best kind. If you’ve never read this book, you owe it to yourself to find a copy immediately. It’s short—less than 100 pages—but the characters come to life so vividly that you’ll think you’ve been reading about them for days. And if you’re a booklover, what’s better than reading a book about books and the people who cherish them? Trust me—read this book!
5. Nothing But The Truth: A Documentary Novel by Avi
The only novel classified as Young Adult on my list, this book is still worthy of being read by an older audience. On the surface, it’s the story of a high school student who is suspended for humming the National Anthem during class and the publicity that results. On a deeper level, it’s the story of how subjective the truth can be. Told through letters, transcripts, and diary entries, this book was a Newbery Honor book in 1992 and is still taught in many classrooms today.
6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
This is the newest book on this list. It made it onto countless “Best Book” lists in 2012 and just recently came out in paperback. The plot is tough to sum up—briefly, it’s the story of an admittedly eccentric woman who was once a world-famous architect, and who now lives a reclusive life in Seattle with her husband and precocious young daughter. After a series of stressful, meltdown-worthy events, she virtually disappears. The narrative is told through letters, emails, transcripts, receipts, and other documents and describes the events leading up to her disappearance as well as her daughter’s efforts to find her. It’s also a great satire about suburban parenting. I am definitely NOT doing the plot justice here—there’s a lot that goes on! I don’t laugh out loud when I’m reading very often, but parts of this book made me do just that. The ending goes off the rails a bit, but I’m willing to forgive the author for that because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much.
7. Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton
Alright—this isn’t a novel made up of letters. But I’m including it anyway because it’s an excellent character study told through a narrative method I’ve never seen before. This book tells the story of a modern, fictional couple—from their first meeting, their first dates, their moving in together, and their breakup—all told through the pages of a (fictional) auction catalog of their personal possessions. Photos and brief descriptions of their clothing, books, knickknacks, handbag contents, photos, and other possessions create one of the most vivid portraits of two characters that I’ve ever read. Readers are left to decide for themselves why these items were placed on auction, and what happened to the original owners. I can’t say this loudly enough—I LOVE THIS BOOK. When I read it for the first time I made a complete pest of myself telling everyone I knew about it. Now I’m telling all of you—if you’ve never read this book, please hunt it down–you’re in for a unique treat!
8. Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
I’ve probably read this book a dozen times. It’s the classic, bestselling novel about a young high school English teacher in 1960s New York City, and the students and staff members who share her world. Are a lot of the references dated? Of course—it was written almost fifty years ago. Is the story still relevant? As a former high school teacher, I can say a resounding YES! The novel is made up of notes, letters, memos, student notebooks, assignments, and much more correspondence that occurs in a typical high school. Parts are laugh out loud funny, and parts are heartbreaking. You may have seen the movie of this book starring a very young Sandy Dennis and an equally young Richard Benjamin—the movie was fine, but it can’t compare with the book. I still use one of the phrases from this book on a regular basis when confronted with contradictory communications at my office—“Please disregard the following. . .”
9. White Lies by Jonellen Heckler
I bought this book on a whim many years ago when I was a member of one of those “Book-Of-The-Month” clubs—and I loved it! It’s the story of three sisters and the directions their lives take over the course of about 20 years. The chapters alternate between the sisters—each chapter contains letters to and from that particular sister over a one-year period. As we read, we learn what the sisters are willing to reveal and to whom, and what they feel they need to hide about their lives. It’s a fascinating look at family relationships. I’m pretty sure this book has gone out of print, but if you enjoy a great, juicy, contemporary family saga told in a unique way, it’s worth searching for a used copy.
10. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel In Pictures by Caroline Preston
Another book that isn’t strictly made up of letters, this novel tells the story of an American girl in the 1920s through her college years, her post-graduation life in New York City, her travels in Paris, and her return home. The entire plot is vividly told through a fictional scrapbook consisting of photos, captions, notes, newsclippings, ads, postcards, trinkets, ticket stubs, etc. This book provides a great trip through life in the 1920s, and looking at all of the vintage memorabilia is fascinating.
Now it’s your turn! Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? Are there any other books that you feel should be included on this list? Please share!