Posted by: montclairlibrary | April 10, 2015


Letters photo by Liz West via Flickr / Creative Commons

Since April is National Letter Writing Month (remember letters?), today we’re celebrating the rich and lengthy history of epistolary novels — stories told via letters, diaries and other documents.

Some of the earliest novels were epistolary, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela
and Fanney Burney’s Evelina. Classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also reveal their plot twists and turns through letters, newspaper articles, ship’s logs and other documents.

Some of my favorite books of the last few years have been ones that play with the epistolary form by including emails, text messages, tweets and other modern documents amongst the traditional entries.

Here are eight novels-in-letters (and one book of short stories), many (but not all) of which use updated forms of communication to tell their stories. It’s not a comprehensive list by any means – what are your favorite epistolary novels?

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (FIC SHAFFER)
Told through old fashioned letters, this is the story of a book club on Guernsey, born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi after its members are discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island during World War II.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (FIC SEMPLE)
This hilarious story of a woman’s midlife crisis is one of the most inventive on this list, including emails, “psychiatrists’ transcripts, police reports, a TED talk and Christmas missives” amongst its content.

The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (YA FIC ROWELL)
This story is partially told in emails between two best friends who work at the same newspaper. Their coworker, assigned to monitor emails that have been flagged for possible inappropriate content, finds himself falling in love with one of the friends through her emails.

S. by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst (FIC ABRAMS) (not at Montclair)
Another truly unique version of the epistolary novel, this one includes actual maps on napkins, postcards, marginalia and other ephemera as it tells the tale of a young woman who picks up a book in the library and starts corresponding with a stranger through notes in the margin, leading her into a mystery.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (FIC DUNN) (not at Montclair)
When a totalitarian government bans the use of certain letters in the alphabet, its citizens have to get creative to continue to communicate via the written word. In addition to being epistolary, this book is lipogramatic (writing that lacks certain letters) – so now you know two 2-dollar literary words.

Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros (FIC MEDEIROS) (not at Montclair)
“Told almost entirely in tweets and DMs, Goodnight Tweetheart is a truly modern take on a classic tale of love and loss, a Griffin and Sabine for the Twitter generation.” (GoodReads)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday (FIC TORDAY) (not at Montclair)
Emails, letters, interviews and news clippings tell the story of an Englishman tasked with establishing salmon in the desert.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
The story of a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, told through the endless letters of recommendation he must write for his students and colleagues, “each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits and passive-aggressive strategies.” (Amazon)

Other People’s Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories, edited by Gail Pool (SS OTHER) (not at Montclair)
If you like your letter-based stories in bite-sized chunks, try this collection of short stories told through letters, by everyone from Alice Munro to A.A. Milne.

Photo: Liz West via Flickr / Creative Commons

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