Wednesday, July 3, 2013

No Postage Required: My Top Five Epistolary Novels

When Sharon wrote about the lost art of letter writing (sniff) on Monday, I couldn't help but be reminded of my love of epistolary novels. Reading novels written as letters or diary entries is delicious. It's like finding a bundle of letters under the bed or in the wall and reading with unrepentant glee. The author, if they're skilled, writes as if she's forgotten her audience is there and writes only as one character to herself as in a diary (monologic) or two characters back and forth (dialogic), or many writers sending letters, telegrams, and emails to one another (polylogic).

Here are my FIVE all-time favorite epistolary novels:

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881-1901, Arizona Territories by Nancy Turner

In the first entry, Sarah is seventeen with poor grammar and a penchant for telling larger-than-life stories about her trip to the heathen land of the Arizona Territories. Her family carries along its future in the form of pecan saplings. Her voice matures over the years as she writes about settling into such a wild land--the good and the bad that shape her. What I loved about the story was the author's ability to grow her character over time. (monologic)

Alice's Tulips by Sandra Dallas

Alice Bullock is a newlywed when her husband up and joins the Union army and leaves his bride with her formidable mother-in-law on an Iowa farm. Alice tells all to her sister in lively letters that reveal a changing relationship with her mother-in-law,  accounts of local quilting bees/gossip, and the rigors of rural life. (monologic)

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Mr. Lewis wrote the original Letters as a serial for an Anglican magazine. He didn't enjoy the experience and promised never to use the epistolary form again. I'm so glad he completed his commitment. Screwtape, a senior demon, mentors Wormwood who has just been assigned a "patient." The power of the letters is their up-side-down look at the spiritual realm. Lewis manages to mentor his readers in the subtlety of evil with his satire. A classic. (monologic)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

My first impediment to reading this novel was its title. I still can't say it without reading the title off the cover. Once I forgot the title--easy for me--I fell in love with the story. The co-authors manage to write an engaging story set just after WWII with multiple voices--letters flinging hither and yon. The main character is writer Juliet Ashton, looking for her next writing project. Along comes a letter from a man she doesn't know because he discovers her address on the leaf jacket of a beloved book. He hopes she can help him find more of his beloved author. A friendship ensues, around books, and Juliet's life is changed forever. The satisfaction  in reading this novel came from the voyeur (of the nicest sort) experience this story provides.

 The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

Yep, two by the same author. In this novel, Mattie is surprised to be the choice of her Iowa town's most desirable bachelor. She marries him within a week and heads for the Colorado Territories in the 1800s. What she experiences is a distant husband and the hardship of carving life out of the prairies. I may love this story because it's about Colorado, my home state. Although never convinced of my ability to settle anything, least of all a prairie with "too much sky," this book convinced me I am a 21-Century woman who better not complain about traffic in Denver. Some of Dallas' motivations are weak, but this is a powerful look into the isolation of prairie life for women. (monologic)

So those are my favorites, but if the list had been longer, I would have not had trouble filling it with more titles. Do you enjoy the epistolary novel? Why so? Which epistolary novels make it to your list of favorites? I need to add more to my list, so please be generous with your titles.


Megan Sayer said...

You mean there are other epistolatory novels besides Gilead?? Really?? That eclipsed pretty much everything for me. I love that book.
But if you're including diaries, I can never go past John Marsden's first novel "So Much To Tell you", the fictional diary of a 14 year old girl who hasn't spoken since a tragic accident that disfigures her face. I first read it when I was fourteen too, but I read it once every ten years or so again.
And...and...The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass aged 37 3/4, without which the world would be a much sadder and lonelier place. I don't need to read that one any more...I have it memorized :)

Josey Bozzo said...

Yes, I do enjoy epistolatory novels. Although I have to admit I did not know that was what they were called.
I don't have much experience reading these types of novels. I would like to read more.
As a school librarian, I have enjoyed the Dear America series and recommend them to students all the time.
I have read novels that are similar to this style, in that each chapter is told from a different character's point of view.(Erica Bauermeister) I really like that.
I think I may need to see that longer list so I can start reading more of these.

Patti Hill said...

Megan: I totally forgot about Gilead. That's definitely on the list, too. Thanks for the reminder and the new titles.

Josey: You can do a Google search for epistolary novels that should lead you to a GoodReads list. There are tons of titles I want to try there.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Perhaps the first epistolary novel I read was "Dracula". I was in eleventh grade and got completely sucked in (ha ha...pun totally intended). I absolutely loved it and love it still. And with nary a sparkly vampire in all the pages.

Cherry Odelberg said...

No, I do not as a rule enjoy epistolary novels; however, two of my favorite-and diverse-books are on your list. Loved the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society for satisfying and educating entertainment and found a home for my heart in the classic, "Screwtape Letters."

Cherry Odelberg said...

Oh, what about Diary of Anne Frank?

V. Gingerich said...

Daddy Long-legs by Jean Webster is too adorable for words, though it has a wretched title that kept me from reading it for years.

Christa Allan said...

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Love it.

Lori Benton said...

SHE GOES TO WAR by Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter was the first for me. I still recall it fondly.

GUERNSEY tops my list, but I'm looking forward to the release of LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole, this summer.

Patti Hill said...

Susie: Of course, Dracula! Thanks for the reminder.

Cherry: Once you start thinking of titles, they're everywhere!

Wanderer: I adored the movie as a kiddo with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, filmed the year I was born! I didn't know it was a book. Okay, add another.

Christa: Saw the title in my "research." Was intrigued. Now, with your recommendation, I'm hooked.

Lori: Is that the story about the woman who goes to the Civil War? If so, I have read that when teaching on the topic. If not, well, I must. I also ran into Letters from Skye. It's also on my TBR list.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Wanderer! Daddy long legs is a treasure to me too! Otherwise I do not especially look for epistolagical novels.
Now I feel challenged to write one...

Sara said...

I love epistolary novels! (And Sandra Dallas--though I think her non-epistolary "Chili Queen" is my favorite).

The 1771 epistolary travel novel "Humphrey Clinker" remains the funniest thing I ever read for a college class and one of the few assigned classics that I go back to.

In the fantasy genre, the three "Sorcery and Cecilia" books by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer are delightful.

Patti Hill said...

Henrietta and Sara: Thanks for stopping by and adding to our list.