Fiction

All Hail the Epistolary Novel

I hereby declare, with all the authority I can muster — don’t laugh; it’s better than nothing — that this summer shall be the Season of the Epistolary Novel.

The declaration is inspired by two great novels-in-letters coming out in the next few months: I’ll Be Seeing You, by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan, who get bonus points forĀ writing the whole thing via correspondence to begin with (Mira, 5/29), and Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole (Ballantine, 7/9). To get you in the mood for these upcoming releases, try one of these:

  • Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster: This one was written a century ago, but feels almost current. Judy Abbott, after eighteen years in the John Grier Home for orphans and foundlings, is on her way to college. She’s been sponsored by an anonymous benefactor, and all she has to do in exchange is write to him each month, since he thinks it’s good training for a future author. If it were being published today, marketing would try to hang a “new adult” label on it. Trust me, it’s not that.
  • Dear Enemy, Jean Webster: Yes, there’s a sequel! Judy, now happily married to [spoiler], drags her college roommate Sallie into service as the new superintendent of the John Grier Home. Sallie was perfectly happy as a frivolous society girl, but she’s not about to back down from a challenge. Modernizing an orphanage, battling authority figures of all sorts, and going nose-to-nose with a Scottish doctor just will not be impressed by red hair and frivolity turns out to be just what she needs.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shafer and Annie Barrows: I can’t be objective about this one — I’ve been cornering people and demanding that they read it since before it was ever published. Post-war England, island life, utterly charming characters. And if you read the Webster books, you’ll probably pick up on one or two homages, since the authors were fans of Judy and Sallie too.
  • Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman: Wouldn’t you choose keeping a diary over doing your daily spinning? A medieval knight’s daughter manages to trade one chore she despises (don’t worry; she’s still got plenty to complain about) by agreeing to keep a record of her days. Those days are spent sabotaging her father’s plans to marry her off, sneaking off when she should be doing housework, keeping an eye on all the village drama — and somehow, despite her unarguable brattiness, being pretty charming too. This one is usually shelved in middle-grade fiction, and it won a Newbery Honor, but don’t let that scare you off, because it’s got plenty to offer an adult reader too.
  • Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, Louise Rennison: Or Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas. Or Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants. Or — fine, I admit it. This series is an easy one to get hooked on. It’s also stretching the definition of epistolary, since Georgia Nicholson doesn’t keep a written diary, just a mental one. But Angus and company are full of fabulosity, kind of in the way jammy dodgers are (it’ll make sense once you read the books, okay?), and also double cool with knobs on. Plus, snogging.

About Sarah Rettger

Sarah spends her nights selling books (in all formats) at an independent bookstore outside Boston, and her days working on a graduate degree in between Twitter breaks. Follow her on Twitter @SarahRettger.