The epistolary novel is a tradition that began in the 15th century. Though “epistolary” is derived from the Latin epistol?, meaning “letter,” the term as a literary category tends to refer to books written in all sorts of forms including diary entries, newspaper clippings, blogs, and emails. The emergence of electronic media has opened up many more avenues and forms which can be integrated into the epistolary tradition. Perhaps needless to say, the epistolary book is still going strong. If you haven’t read one lately, we’ve compiled a list of seven of our recent favorites. Check them out, and if you have a favorite book in the epistolary tradition, be sure and let us know in the comments section below.
Moody’s new novel is comprised almost entirely of a series of hotel reviews, written by the fictional Reginald Edward Morse. Through the various reviews, the reader learns much about Morse’s personal life, his disintegrated marriage, his estrangement from his daughter, his career failures, etc. Framing Morse’s reviews and the story they tell, are an introduction and an afterward, which was written by the author Rick Moody, discussing the mysterious disappearance of Reginald Edward Morse.
Though best known as an actress, Parker recently released a memoir, and it’s far from the “typical” celebrity memoir. Rather than give an abridged overview of her life and career, Parker composes the memoir as a series of letters addressed to the various men in her life, both real and hypothetical. Parker takes full advantage of the epistolary form, reminding us what reading ultimately is: a conversation.
Before Fangirl and Carry On, Rowell wrote an epistolary novel called Attachments, which, as the title suggests, is told almost entirely through a series of emails between two coworkers. The emails give a detailed and hilarious account of both characters’ lives. This doesn’t just entertain the reader, but another character, Lincoln, who is hired to monitor emails. Though he knows he should turn in the employees for discussing personal matters at work, he’s made helpless to do so by the fact that he’s deeply entertained by the emails. You can imagine, right?
Made into a film in 2011, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is built around a school shooting. The novel is told through a series of letters the attacker’s mother writes to her estranged husband after the shooting. This novel is a strong example of how thrilling and captivating the epistolary novel can be, as well as the fact that a novel in the form of letters doesn’t need to sacrifice anything in the way of plot.
Groff’s debut novel is a strong indication of the potential she has since realized. The Monsters of Templeton is about a woman who, after a disastrous love affair with a married man, comes back to her childhood town, a place she once vowed never to return. Once there, details of her past begin to fall apart. Perhaps most notable about this book is its ambitious structure, composed, in part, as letters and diary entries that not only tell the protagonist’s story, but moves through characters and time periods.
Adiga’s debut novel, which won the Booker Prize the same year as its release (2008), is written as one long letter from the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to the president of China. The letter, written over the course of seven days, details Halwai’s life and sheds light on India’s class struggle in an increasingly globalized world.
The eponymous Bernadette is a mother, wife, successful businessperson, and ever-worsening agoraphobe. When she suddenly and with no warning disappears, her fifteen year old daughter pieces together her emails, work documents, and personal correspondence to shed light on what happened to her. Though the story might seem somewhat heavy, it’s also a funny, lighthearted, and touching exploration of the mother-daughter relationship.
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