Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Epistolary novels

At book club last night, we discussed Sorcery and Cecilia, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I liked the book. I really did. It was fun and unusual and creative and set in the 19th century and it was an epistolary novel. That last 'and' should probably be a 'but.' I don't have a good history with epistolary novels. I avoid them, and when I do read them, I usually don't like them. That's why The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (another book club pick and an epistolary novel) was such an unlikely favorite for me. I was caught off guard by it and loved it almost against my will, despite the epistolary-ness of it.

The nature of my damage with epistolary novels is that I think it's disingenuous to have the narrator(s) scribbling away for chapters at a time - often with old-fashioned pen and paper - when in real life, if they did so, they wouldn't have time to actually experience any of the plot. You know, because they'd be writing all day. Sorcery and Cecelia is a fairly egregious offender in that regard.

Another issue is that I find epistolary novels to be singularly disorienting. It takes me much longer to wrap my head around the principal characters and plot of an epistolary novel because the point of view jumps around so much and the reader is thrust right into the middle of the action. I find myself having to pay meticulous attention to tiny details, often flipping back pages to answer questions such as, "wait, who was the letter to? When was it written? And from where?" It can get a little tiresome.

The final off-putting trait of epistolary novels is that in general, you know the characters writing the letters emerge from any and all danger at least relatively unscathed. They're writing the story, after all. Even if a character starts off a letter saying, "Oh, sister, let me tell you all the terrifying and amazing events that have come to pass since I last wrote!" the suspense is killed because, well, she's writing the letter so she's fine. I remember The Woman in White being especially ridiculous in this regard, but it's only partly epistolary so I forgive it.

All that said, if an epistolary novel is good enough that I'm willing to suspend disbelief for a while and accept that it really didn't take that long to write all that stuff down, then I'm all for it. As obviously was the case with Guernsey, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Sorcery and Cecilia (which, FYI, I think you should read. It was described to me as a cross between Jane Austen and Harry Potter and that is pretty accurate).

Have you ever thought to form an opinion on epistolary novels? What are the worst offenders of this genre? What are the best examples of it?


Suzanne Bubnash said...

I too loved Guernsey Literary Society once I got into it and wish now there was a sequel. At first I was flipping around to figure out what was going on, which annoyed me. So generally I don't care for that format.

Nancy said...

I read Sorcery and Cecelia years ago and loved it. So I read the sequel--didn't love that. Just a head's up.

But, yes, Sorcery and Cecelia was good, I thought. :) I think part of what made it good is because it is by two authors writing for their respective characters so there really is a "back and forthing" going on instead of an attempt at back and forthing.


Bridget said...

Nancy, the thing that took Sorcery and Cecelia up a notch for me was that it developed unintentionally. These two authors were doing a writing exercise and hadn't discussed plot or anything ahead of time. I thought that was kind of neat.

Liz Johnson said...

Um... I didn't even know what an epistolary novel was until this post. :)

Jennifer said...

Thanks for being able it admit it, Liz. I too had to look it up.

Amber said...

Oh good. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who didn't know what that was.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I lurk. Until I don't.

Epistolary novels: In general I am not terribly bothered by them, except for Clarissa. Oh, the horror that is Clarissa. I wrote in my own blog about it and my feelings on epistolary novels:

One of the earliest (and longest, oh heavens, the longest) was Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, the story of a young woman being forced into a marriage at her family's wishes. Her letters are long, drawn out, and full of the female helplessness popular in that time. Oh, my heavens, do I hate that novel. The version I was supposed to read for a class was an abridged version, and it was still immensely huge, and I had to skip parts and skim read to get to the letters where stuff actually happened.

I do like Dracula, however, because as an epistolary work, it has the novelty of having an uncertainty for the characters and their well-being.

I'm sorry, and I'll go back to my regularly scheduled lurking.

Bridget said...

Loradona, I almost mentioned Dracula in this post because it does manage to maintain the suspense even though it is epistolary. The other thing I like about the epistolary device in that book is that you are able to see Jonathan Harker's descent into madness in that first part of the book. In that case, the extreme first-hand point of view of the letters really helps.


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