I recently created a book display called “You’ve Got Mail!” for epistolary novels, or novels written in the form of letters or journal entries. This is an old literary device, think Frankenstein (Shelley), Dracula (Stoker), or The Woman in White (Collins). Nicholas Sparks, the darling of romance fiction has used this device to some extent in several of his novels: Message in a Bottle, Dear John, and The Notebook. More recent novels tell their stories through email, text messages, tweets, or blog posts. Epistolary novels can be very engaging for the reader; we are allowed to read someone’s personal letters or diary, almost as if we’re peeking into something very private. Here are a few examples of this interesting writing style:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Winner of the Pulitzer and National Book Award (1982), The Color Purple is the heartbreaking story of Celie, a poor black woman growing up in rural Georgia in the 1930s. The narrative is told through her letters to God, and later to her sister Nettie, who was adopted by missionaries in Africa.
Different Class by by Joanna Harris
The narrative goes back and forth between past and present, including a series of letters written from one student to another. The letters get darker and more serious as time goes by, laying the groundwork for a mystery and a shocking conclusion. The setting is in England’s St. Oswald’s Grammar School, and the unlikely hero is Straitly, an aging Latin Master braving the tides of change. It is a refreshing and thrilling crime novel, and another good example of the epistolary device.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows
Writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject and she finds it in a letter from a man she has never met, who lives in Guernsey, a British island close to France which was occupied during World War II. A correspondence begins, making this an excellent example of the epistolary style. It is a charming book, and a frequent choice of book club discussions.
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
I don’t normally read YA dystopian novels, but I started this epistolary novel told through 16- year-old Miranda’s journal and whizzed right through it. Miranda is a normal angst-filled teenager when her life is literally rocked by a meteor collision and “life as we knew it” becomes a daily struggle for survival. The science is a bit shaky; okay, very shaky, but I found myself drawn into Miranda’s story.
The Spy by Paul Coelho
Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist, offers an historical fiction account of the famous spy, Mata Hari. It opens with her execution by firing squad and then her account is delivered via a letter written to the man who defended her.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
When Bernadette disappears, her 15-year-old daughter Bee compiles e-mails, official documents, and personal correspondence to solve the mystery of her whereabouts, leading to a chase around the world all the way to Antarctica. First published in 2012, this satire continues to be wildly popular, and is yet another excellent example of the epistolary novel.