There’s something intimate about reading letters. When we write them, we give permanence to what has previously been in our minds and hearts, and when we read them, we get a peak into the feelings others. I’m guessing that’s what makes epistolary novels so engaging – connections built on the pieces of self we see embedded in each missive.
Here are five of my favorite epistolary novels:
Love, Mary Elisabeth by Christy Martenson
Set in the Pacific Northwest, this charming novel is reminiscent of the Dear America books I so loved in grade school. Instead of diary entries, Love, Mary Elisabeth is comprised of letters written by eleven-year-old Mary Elisabeth and a few of her family members. Mary Elisabeth is a city (Seattle) girl who goes to live with relatives on a farm while her mother recovers from tuberculosis and her Papa works in the shipyards.
Christy has captured the joy of a childhood spent navigating the triumphs and trials of country life that is so captivating in classics like Understood Betsy and Up A Road Slowly. Sometimes I find young narrators to be grating, but Mary Elisabeth’s youth is full of believable innocence without being saccharine. I can’t wait to read this gem with my kids. The pretty cover and inside sketches are a wonderful bonus with the paperback!
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Guernsey has so much to recommend itself. The plot centers around a writer, Juliet, who receives a letter from a stranger that catapults her into the middle of an off-beat society formed on the island of Guernsey during the German occupation in WWII. I love historical fiction about WWII and this offered a setting and events I wasn’t familiar with previously. Plus, the letters are written by a cast of colorful characters who have unique voices that are witty and endearing. Having so many people writing letters can get a wee bit confusing but keeps the novel moving and interesting. The love story is sweet but doesn’t dominate the narrative. I feel like I’m rambling about this book, but I thought it was lovely and re-read worthy.
Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay
I’ve said it before, Katherine Reay is a master at integrating classic literature into original plot lines and Dear Mr. Knightley is my favorite. The title alone would convince the likes of me that it was worth reading – because who can pass up a nod to Austen (and Emma for that matter)? – but Dear Mr. Knightley can stand alone with it’s nuanced plot that is both charming and poignant. Plus, she gives a nod to epistolary forerunners like Lady Susan and Evelina.
The story centers around Sam, a twenty-three year old orphan who is back at Grace House after getting fired from her desk job. When an anonymous benefactor offers to fund her continued education, Sam reluctantly applies to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. There’s a catch: on top of her doubts about the program, she must write regular letters to the mysterious donor who chooses to be addressed as Mr. Knightley. A unique relationship develops as Sam begins to sort through her painful past in the one-sided letters. (You can read my more lengthy review here.)
If that description reminds you of Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (another wonderful epistolary classic), you’d be right in seeing similarities!
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
The work of C. S. Lewis is important to my spiritual growth and The Screwtape Letters is no exception. Sometimes you have to hear truths from a different perspective to have them sink in and that’s what The Screwtape Letters did for me. The slim novel is comprised of correspondence between a more seasoned devil, Screwtape, and his young nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape gives advice on how best to derail Wormwood’s “patient.” With his characteristic wit, creativity, and faith, Lewis explores good and evil, temptation and grace.
My family readThe Screwtape Letters around the dinner table over the course of a few weeks when I was in late middle school. It took me a few letters to wrap my mind around it being written from a devil’s perspective. I had to keep reminding myself that “the Enemy” wasn’t referring to Satan but God. But because I had to pay a bit more attention to keep things straight, I found the story/message more impactful.
What would happen if it were illegal to use an increasingly large number of the letters in our alphabet? Ella and the residents of Nollop find out when the island’s council bans the use of letters as they mysteriously drop from a memorial statue commemorating the author of the phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which contains all the letters of the alphabet. The letters written in the book contain the alphabet restrictions being laid on the citizens of Nollop.
Ella Minnow Pea is lots of fun for the English Major type or those who love words. It’s also an interesting reflection on freedom of expression, fear mongering, and totalitarian government.
What’s your favorite epistolary novel?
A book flight is a curated sampling of reading material that shares some defining quality: theme, setting, time frame, subject matter, etc. Like a beverage flight, the samples are selected with care and presented together intentionally with the purpose of expanding the sampler’s horizons, developing literary discernment, and encouraging reflection and analysis as she considers, compares, and contrasts each book.
6 thoughts on “An Epistolary Book Flight”
I’ve read four of your five, one at your suggestion! I’m coming up blank on epistolary novels at the moment. (I keep thinking of Anne of Windy Poplars, which is my least favorite Anne book.) I think the A Brief Histort of Montmaray and its sequels are epistolary and set similarly to the Guernsey book: in a fictional island off the Jersey islands where a tiny impoverished royal family lives through World War II. But it might be journal entities, come to think of it…
Yeah, until I was looking into epistolary novels, I didn’t realize Dracula and Frankenstein (neither of which I have read) were epistolary.
Ooh! I’ve read Frankenstein. I liked it in college but it was a slog as an adult. (This is sometimes a theme in my re-reading, as I’m so much more interruptible at the moment!) Gilead is kind of one big letter from an aging father to his young son, and it’s one of my all-time favorite books, which I’m currently re-reading and still enjoying (for once!). Do you think it counts?
That totally counts! And I’m so glad to hear you say that about Gilead – it’s on my shelf.
Oh, I’m going to have to find Ella Minnow Pea! And I’ve never heard of Lady Susan or Evelina. Are they good reads?
As to my favorite epistolary novels… I adore Dear Mr. Knightley (which I read before Jean Webster’s books), but Daddy-Long-Legs (and its sequel, Dear Enemy) would have to be some of my favorite epistolary novels. Along with Love, Mary Elisabeth, which holds a very special place in my heart–and my daughter’s.
Lady Susan is part of Jane Austen’s juvenilia and Evelina is by Fanny Burney, a predecessor to Austen. I enjoyed both, though Evelina was a bit slow in parts.