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100 Must-Read Epistolary Novels from the Past and Present

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Jesse Doogan

Staff Writer

Jesse Doogan writes about food, faith, books, and DIY projects, and sometimes even puts these things on her blog. She works in publishing and lives near Chicago with her cat. She tweets about all these things at @jadoogan.   Blog Twitter: @jadoogan

There is something pleasantly, innocently voyeuristic about reading an epistolary novel. They give you the feeling of stumbling on a box of letters left in an attic, but there are no consequences or hurt feelings if you read them. Actually, the author prefers that you read them. Epistolary novels, books told through diaries or letters, have a way of making you feel even closer to story’s characters than the average first-person point-of-view story. You’re not in the character’s head, but you’re reading words that they are writing for the eyes of only one or two other people. You’re seeing a version of the story that has been edited by the fictional people living it.

Epistolary novels have been around almost as long as the novel itself, with the first recorded, Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, appearing only 80 years after Don Quixote. The popularity of the form dropped off after the turn of the 19th century or so, but in the last few years, the number of epistolary novels has seemed to explode, with stories told through email, texts, and IMs. Epistolary novels have been used to expose real injustices (Letters from a Peruvian Woman, The Houseboy), to solve pretend mysteries (The Documents in the Case, The Woman in White), and to explore developing romances (Possession, Attachments, Everything Everything). They are ideal vehicles for telling coming-of-age stories, because the protagonists are allowed to work out their growing up years without outside input, and that gives us marvelous diaries like I Capture the Castle and Harriet the Spy. (I identified so strongly with the main character in I Capture the Castle that the notes I made on my copy embarrass me to this day. No, you may not borrow it. I’m sure your library has a copy.) For much the same reason, epistolary novels are great for watching the slow, hilarious crazy-making of uppermiddle class folks (Where’d You Go Bernadette, Dear Committee Members). (I also strongly identified with Bernadette. That has its own problems.)

Some of the most fun epistolary novels to read are the ones that really play with the form, like Ella Minnow Pea (the residents of a small island are only allowed to write letters using characters from a slowly shrinking alphabet), or Griffin and Sabine, a gorgeously (and creepily) illustrated story told in letters and postcards between the two main characters.

In my list of 100 epistolary novels, I’ve included a few books that don’t tell the whole story through diaries or letters, but which use diaries or letters as major plot points. Two, Bats of the Republic and The Jolly Postman, are two very different but beautifully built books that hinge on you pulling physical letters out of actual envelopes that are built into the books themselves.

So, instead of trawling through attics or other people’s files and chat stories, please enjoy list of 100 can’t miss epistolary novels, from the 17th century to today, and a few set in the near future (The Martian).

  1. Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn (1684)
  2. Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740)
  3. Letters from a Peruvian Woman by Françoise de Graffigny (1747)
  4. Julie or the New Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1761)
  5. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771)
  6. Evelina by Frances Burney (1778)
  7. Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1784)
  8. Aline and Valcour by Marquis de Sade (1795)
  9. Hyperion by Friedrich Hölderlin (1797)
  10. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1799)
  11. The Wild Irish Girl by Sydney Owenson (1806)
  12. Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817)
  13. Letters of Two Brides by Honoré de Balzac (1841)
  14. Poor Folk By Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1846)
  15. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)
  16. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)
  17. Lady Susan by Jane Austen (1871)
  18. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
  19. The American Diary of a Japanese Girl by Yone Noguchi (1901)
  20. The Kempton-Wace Letters by Jack London (1903)
  21. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (1912)
  22. You Know Me Al: A Busher’s Letters by Ring Lardner (1916)
  23. Givi Shaduri by Mikheil Javakhishvili (1928)
  24. Farthing Hall by Hugh Walpole and J.B. Priestley (1929)
  25. The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace (1930)
  26. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1936)
  27. Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1942)
  28. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)
  29. Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono (1956)
  30. The Key (Kaji) by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1956)
  31. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959)
  32. Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman (1964)
  33. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
  34. Herzog by Saul Bellow (1964)
  35. Silence by Shusaku Endo (1966)
  36. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
  37. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (1971)
  38. Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
  39. A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey (1978)
  40. So Long a Letter (Une si longue letre) by Mariama Bâ (1981)
  41. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
  42. The Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend (1985)
  43. Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Welden(1985)
  44. The Jolly Postman by Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlberg (1986)
  45. Juletane by Myriam Warner-Vieyra (1987)
  46. The Facts by Philip Roth (1988)
  47. Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech (1990)
  48. Letters from the Inside by John Marsden (1991)
  49. Possession by A.S. Byatt
  50. Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock (1991)
  51. Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse (1992)
  52. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (1995)
  53. Zenzele: A Letter for my Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire (1996)
  54. The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)
  55. Going Solo by Hope Keshubi (1997)
  56. Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes (1998)
  57. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)
  58. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
  59. Feeling Sorry for Cecelia by Jaclyn Moriarty (2000)
  60. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
  61. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (2000)
  62. Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce Echenique (2001)
  63. Ella Minow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)
  64. The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty (2003)
  65. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
  66. The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips (2004)
  67. Love, Rosie by Cecelia Ahern (2004)
  68. TTYL by Lauren Myracle (2004)
  69. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
  70. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
  71. Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon (2005)
  72. World War Z by Max Brooks (2006)
  73. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007)
  74. Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (2007)
  75. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008)
  76. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)
  77. Overqualified by Joey Comeau (2009)
  78. Richard Yates by Tao Lin (2010)
  79. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)
  80. Frances & Bernard by Carlene Bauer (2012)
  81. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wien (2012)
  82. Dear Mr Knightley by Katherine Reay (2013)
  83. Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (2013)
  84. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
  85. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira (2014)
  86. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (2014)
  87. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (2014)
  88. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (2014)
  89. Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg (2014)
  90. Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (2014)
  91. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (2015)
  92. The Martian by Andy Weir (2015)
  93. The Devourers by Indra Das (2015)
  94. Dear Mrs. Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian (2015)
  95. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon (2015)
  96. The Incarnations by Susan Barker (2015)
  97. Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson (2015)
  98. How to Party With an Infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings (2016)
  99. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Nèuvel (2016)
  100. Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai (2016)