On Epistolary Novels

April 2, 2014

I’ve been thinking recently about the kind of books I like to read and while I really am all over the map, there’s one style that I’ve noticed I really enjoy: epistolary novels. Epistolary novels are told through letters (traditionally only through letters, but sometimes they have other kinds of writing mixed in).

Sometimes I think that they don’t get enough credit or recognition, but part of that might be that they can be difficult to do well and for readers to connect to the story. A common complaint is that they don’t move fast enough, which I suppose is a valid argument for some books, but epistolary novels give such a great view into the minds of characters as events occur. In many ways they more closely mirror “real life” in the way characters view and choose to present information.

One of my favorite epistolary novels is Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. In this story Ella and her family and friends live in a fictional island devoted to Nevin Nollop, the author of the phrase containing all 26 letters of the alphabet, “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” When letters on Nollop’s memorial statue begin falling and the island’s Council decrees that those letters can no longer be used, Ella finds herself fighting for language and freedom of expression.

The epistolary style that Dunn uses to tell this story is the perfect way to show the struggles of the community as they’re forced to drop letters from their vocabulary. I just don’t think that other, more traditional narrative styles would so seamlessly exhibit the characters’ experiences.

A more “modern” epistolary novel is Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. This book tackles some other issues that are more relatable in literature (read: not fitting in, family disfunction, etc.), but does so through giving readers glances at emails, electronic newsletters, and excerpts of online journal entries.

The style worked well in this particular story because it allowed Semple to control the flow of information — it didn’t provide the whole picture at once. The reader was able to see snippets of what was going on in each character’s life, but the full story wasn’t revealed until the perfect moment and this little bit of mystery kept everything interesting.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a great example of how epistolary novels can still work even as more of our communication moves online. I sincerely hope that authors do not abandon this style as it is such a fun way to get into characters’ heads in less conventional ways.

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