What story would your text messages tell? What about the letters you wrote home from camp as a kid, the journal you kept as a young adult, or the notes you jotted during meetings at your first job? Epistolary novels take artifacts such as these and form them into a compelling narrative told through documents.
Traditionally, “epistolary” was used to describe books where the story was told through letters written between characters but has expanded to include a wide range of documents. Everything from instant messages to police reports becomes part of the story, giving us glimpses into the minds and motivations of characters within the book’s world. Epistolary novels can also help bridge gaps in time and place, since characters don’t have to be in the same physical space in order to have a kind of dialogue with each other. This means that authors can experiment with settings in a way that can’t be done as smoothly in other novel forms and that readers can even get different perspectives on an event by looking at its record through different documents.
Below, you’ll find novels of letters, stories told through legal documents, and authors who play with our knowledge of time and space using the epistolary form. Whichever book you pick up first, you’ll get an enjoyable glimpse into this unique writing format.
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
A murder in a small town leads two law students to sort through a pile of emails, text messages, and court filings in hopes of proving that their client has been wrongly convicted and finding the real killer. Fans of Agatha Christie will dive into this modern twist on the small-town mystery, where everyone is a suspect.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Red and Blue are spies on opposite sides of a never-ending war who become pen pals after Red finds a mocking note from Blue amongst the war’s wreckage. Red expects excitement to come from their written taunts between one another but doesn’t expect to fall in love through their letters. This story mixes science fiction and poetic writing for a twist on the time-bending genre.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In Tokyo, 16-year-old Nao has decided to end her life, but first, she intends to chronicle the life of her Buddhist nun great-grandmother in a diary. Across the Pacific, Ruth has found Nao’s dairy after tsunami debris washes ashore near her house. As Ruth begins reading, she becomes obsessed with the story of Nao’s grandmother and with finding out about Nao’s fate. Despite the heavy subject matter, this is a beautiful book that is both haunting and hopeful.
Told through the letters between Joan Bergstrom, a young writer in southern California, and Imogen Fortier, a columnist who lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, this book spans mid-century America, serving as both a chronicle of the time and a love letter to food. Through their correspondence, the women trade exciting new ingredients, parse events of the time, and develop a genuine friendship that allows them both to blossom in their lives.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill
A book within a book, within letters, within a mystery. When a woman’s scream shatters the silence of a library, it sets in motion a series of violent events. While the scene is cleared, four strangers who happen to be sitting at the same table begin bonding with one another, not knowing one of them is the killer in the murder they just witnessed.
Cover Story by Susan Rigetti
This is a must-read for anyone fascinated by the world of celebrity ghostwriting. At her ELLE magazine internship, Lora Ricci meets Cat Wolff, an editor who is daughter of a mogul. As the two become close, Lora opens up to Cat about her financial troubles, and Cat makes an offer: drop out of NYU and become her ghostwriter, complete with living in a suite at the Plaza. As Lora delves deeper into Cat’s world, she begins to see that the glitz and glamour hide an illicit world. Told through correspondence, news articles, and FBI reports, this is a fast-paced read.
An Island at War by Deborah Carr
It’s June 1940 and Estelle Le Maistre has been left behind on the island of Jersey to help her grandmother run the family farm, while her sister Rosie is sent to the UK for safekeeping. Interspersed with Rosie’s diary entries and letters home, this novel traces the Nazi occupation of Jersey and was inspired by the real-life stories of the author’s family.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
This Booker Prize-winning novel takes the form of letters sent from Balram Halwai, a driven, Indian businessman, to the president of China, who is about to visit Bangalore. In the letters, Halwai details his rise from servant to the pinnacle of entrepreneur culture, as well as sharing darkly comic observations of modern life and class in Bangalore.
The Incarnations by Susan Barker
Wang Jun, a Beijing taxi driver, finds a letter dropped into his lap one day claiming to be from his soulmate. As letters continue to arrive, he realizes that they are from people in his past lives, detailing everything from being enslaved and escaping Genghis Khan to serving on the Red Guard as a teenager. This book plays with format, time, and characters to create a unique reading experience.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn
Okay, hear me out. Yes, this is often shelved as a middle grade or YA book. But, I’d also claim that it’s a valuable read as an adult who loves written language and the power it gives us to tell stories. Ella Minnow Pea lives on the island of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, who coined the sentence containing all the letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” However, Nollop is being ruled by the totalitarian Island Council, and as letters drop from a statue of Nevin Nollop, the islanders are forbidden to use them when writing. This book is a creative exercise in writing that will delight book lovers!