31 Days of Reading Well: Day 15

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To get inspiration for these posts, I’ve often scrolled through the list of books I’ve read (either here on this blog, or a more comprehensive list on Paperbackswap). One that popped out to me tonight was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  It’s an excellent book combining history, romance, a strong and clear female main character, and lovable minor characters.

(From now on it will be known as GLPPS, because the endearingly long title is a little much to write again and again.)

GLPPS is also an epistolary novel.

You might recognize the beginning of the word epistolary; Paul’s writings in the Bible are the epistles. The Latin word epistola means “letter, dispatch, written communication.” Set in 1946, GLPPS is written entirely in letters. The main character, a young writer and journalist, writes back and forth with her editor, friends, and the members of a literary society on Guernsey island.

It’s all fiction; and yet, somehow, the letters seem almost real, perhaps make the story that much more believable. It gives you the sense the narrator is not even there. It’s just you, the reader, and the characters, working through the story together. It’s intense. Reading a collection of letters in a book is so close to coming across your grandparents’ love letters in a box and becoming emerged in their story. It can be very real.

Epistolary novels are certainly nothing new, although now they may include texts, e-mails, or instant-message conversations. I can think of a wide range of books I’ve read using written communication, sporadically or throughout, from chicklit to Christian fiction to Libbie’s toddler books.

I’ll never forget hearing someone in my creative nonfiction class read an essay about Memoirs of a Geisha. It was something about being duped by the author because he sets it up that the book is based on a “series of interviews” with a real geisha. And it’s not. While Arthur Golden did do extensive research on Japanese culture and the lives of geishas, his book was not the story of a real geisha.

I had read the whole book under the impression that the main character had lived. I might have gone home and cried.

But I believe the author used the same idea behind an epistolary novel: he takes himself out of the picture as much as possible. It can be an extremely effective tactic.

I’m interested by the lists I’m finding of classic and modern epistolary novels; many I have heard of, but not read. They include The Screwtape Letters, Ella Minnow Pea, Dracula (which I have read), and Clarissa, the longest novel in the English language. That’s a lot of letters!

So, I find the technique of adding “real-life elements” to novels to be sometimes convincing, sometimes a little too deceptive and emotionally manipulative. What do you think? Do you have a favorite epistolary novel or one that uses letters, e-mails, or other written material?

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2 thoughts on “31 Days of Reading Well: Day 15

  1. I'd have to say that GLPPS is my favorite epistolary, although I'd include Bridget Jones' Diary, which is, of course journalistic. Is that a word? I'm reading Ella Minnow Pea now, which I discovered from your pinterest. I'll let you know. So far, it's good. Very interesting.

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