Do you love feeling as though you are part of the fabric of the world? Do you like the realism that comes from reading a novel that's framed as a diary, or a series of letters? Well, if that's the case, my friend, you are a fan of epistolary novels.
For the uninitiated, an epistolary novel is a narrative that's compiled of diary entries, letters, or newspaper clippings that tie together to reveal the plot. While this seemingly experimental format sounds relatively modern, the first epistolary novel was a Spanish novel called Cárcel de amor, (or Prison of Love) by Diego de San Pedro, originally published in 1485, as a traditional narrative with letters peppered throughout. Such novels started growing in popularity in the 18th century, which such famous tales as the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and the 1774 German novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (or The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The popularity of such novels never really went away, and with good reason. No matter what the story is, it adds a certain realism to read about it all through the eyes of the characters.
As technology advances, so does the technology presented in modern day epistolary novels, which can lead to some pretty fun and experimental novels. To celebrate this incredible format, I've compiled a list of 12 epistolary novels that will immerse you completely in the story. Whether we're going to court for free speech, reading the letters or two best friends in Regency England, or going over the e-mails of a bored accountant on a terrible day we'll never forget, you won't help but feel as though you're sitting right there with them.
1. Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Originally published in 1964, Up the Down Staircase made a bit of a splash when it was first published, being the source of both a film and theatrical adaptation. The story centers on inner-city high school English teacher Sylvia Barrett as she hopes to instill in her students a love of classical literature. Quickly she becomes discouraged by the bureaucracy of the school, the indifference of the students, and the incompetence of her coworkers. The story itself is told in memos, fragments of notes left in trash cans, lesson plans, suggestion box notes, among other things.
2. Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger
When a high school jock falls in love with an nerd during their senior year, they spend one amazing summer together before parting ways for college. Twenty years later, Travis and Craig are both living completely great lives, until Travis realizes that he's still in love with Craig and decides to tear his entire life apart to win him back. Almost Like Being in Love has a little traditional narrative, but is also told in checklists, e-mails, letters, and much more.
3. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series, C.S. Lewis also penned this wicked satire. The story centers on a demon named Screwtape, one of the top "tempters" for the devil, as he writes to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood has been recently put in charge of the temptation and hopeful damnation of a young man, and through these letters Screwtape gives his very own view of humanity, which isn't exactly the rosiest of views. It's a dark and satirical book that is guaranteed to make you think.
4. The Islanders by Christopher Priest
The Islanders is one of the more unconventional books on the list, presenting the entire narrative in the form of a daily newspaper centering on the Dream Archipelago, a string of strange fictional islands that are spread around the world. The narrative unfolds as one reads the issues, unraveling a complex story of murder, war, and forbidden love. It's definitely a bit of a challenge to read, but the immersion in the world cannot be beat.
5. Eleven by David Llewellyn
Told entirely in e-mails sent between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on September 11, 2001 in Cardiff, Wales, Eleven centers on frustrated would-be author and corporate accountant Martin Davies. Unwilling to accept the ending of his relationship and annoyed with the way his life has gone, Davies gossips idly at his desk until just after lunch, when the attacks of September 11 begin. Taking mood-whiplash to an entirely new level, this book is real and tragic.
6. The Book of Renfield by Tim Lucas
It is my personal opinion that Renfield is one of the best characters in classic literary horror, and now he has finally gotten his due. Told in the same style as Dracula, The Book of Renfield uncovers the mysterious origins of this servant of Dracula by uncovering the lost private diaries, professional journals, and wax cylinder recordings belonging to Dr. John Seward as he obsessively attempts to solve the mystery of Renfield's madness. Sure, it's Dracula fanfiction, but the narrative fits seamlessly into the original tale.
7. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Told in both diary entries and e-mail correspondence, Super Sad True Love Story takes place in a soon-to-come dystopia where a functionally illiterate America is on the verge of collapse. Enter 39-year-old Lenny Abramov, the son of an angry Russian janitor, who just so happens to be stuck in the wrong century. He loves print books and owns what may very well be the last paper diary in existence. He swiftly falls in love with Eunice Park, who struggles under the pressure of her Korean family. Needless to say, this love story might end sadly, but it's the portrait of a very real American that might get to you first.
8. The Beatrice Letters by Lemony Snicket
For fans of the A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Beatrice Letters fills in the blanks concerning the relationship between Beatrice, the mother of the Baudelaire children and Lemony Snicket, the author devoted to penning their tales. A bittersweet love story that can stand on its own in spite of the fact that it's connected to the series, this novel is told entirely in letters between them, focusing mostly on the doomed love that Lemony has for his beloved Beatrice.
9. Sorcery and Cecelia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
A super charming fantasy novel set in Regency England, Sorcery and Cecelia is told entirely through letters between the titular Cecelia and her lifelong friend Kate who is spending her first season in London. While Kate falls into the path of an evil magician, Cecelia uncovers several magical problems of her own in the country. Not only is this a charming epistolary novel, it originally began as a "letter game" between the two authors, meaning that they wrote letters in character to each other without discussing the plot in person, thus developing the story organically.
10. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This complicated tale takes the form of journals, letters, manuscripts, oral histories, and interview transcripts set across centuries, with each narrator reading the narrative of the previous narrator. Confused? That's not the half of it. The novel beginning in 1850 with Adam Ewing, a notary who has traveled from the Chatham Isles back home to California. He quickly meets a doctor who begins to treat him for a brain parasite, and the action then jumps to 1931, where a disinherited bisexual composer is attempting to charm his way into the rich household of a maestro who has a beautiful wife and daughter. After that we go to the West Coat of 1970, to modern-day England, to a future Korean citystate, and then finally to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. The plot is far too complicated to recount here more than I have, but it's definitely worth a read.
11. The Gum Thief by Douglas Copeland
The Gum Thief is centered on Roger, a divorced, middle-aged "aisles associate" at Staples and his co-worker Bethany, a woman in her mid-20s who has yet to get out of her goth phase. When Bethany finds that Roger has been writing a mock diary from her point of view (and getting it eerily correct) the two of them strike up a correspondence. Told alternately in diary entries, letters, notes, and it also includes regular installments of Roger's own novella Glove Pond.
12. Nothing but the Truth by Avi
This YA novel was actually the first epistolary novel I ever read. Told in transcripted dialogue, notes, memos, and e-mail, Nothing but the Truth centers on ninth grader Philip Malloy who has been forbidden to join the track team thanks to his low grades in his English class. Chalking up the situation to the fact that the teacher just doesn't like him, Philip develops a plan to transfer out of her class, which includes homeroom. One day he hums along to the national anthem, breaking the school's policy of silence. When his teacher calls him out on it, the situation snowballs until it ends up on trial.
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