This has to be hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. I am not a fan of epistolary novels however this one grasped my attention and did not let it go, till I had finished the book. There are very few books that manage to do that. This is one of them. “Frances and Bernard” by Carlene Bauer is more than just an epistolary novel. It is also a literary homage of sorts to two giants – Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, on whom the characters are based. This made the book twice as much fantastical for me.
Frances and Bernard are very different from each other (but of course, they couldn’t have been similar, given the nature of this book). They meet at a writer’s colony in the summer of 1957 and begin their correspondence. They meet some more times after that and recognize a kindred spirit in each other. They write about almost everything to each other – from friends, to lovers, to affairs, to their writing, their pitfalls, about their manuscripts and even their faith. There are other people whose letters are also in so the reader gets a complete understanding of Frances and Bernard – there is Claire, Frances’ best friend, Bernard’s friend Ted and their joint publisher John. Reading the letters is the perfect way to get into the skin of characters. It is the difference in the characters’ views and opinions that make the story what it is.
The book by covering almost every ground (as mentioned in the above paragraph) only shows us a glimpse of what Bauer’s writing is capable of. The voyeuristic urge is present in every single one of us and novels such as these only cater to them and sometimes even succeed brilliantly in satisfying them. The letters are sometimes rich in their content and sometimes flippant and yet that is what will keep the reader going with every turn of the page. The entire novel is formatted very well and doesn’t seem hurried or too slow. The pace is just perfect.
The love of reading and writing is what struck me and stayed with me long after I had finished reading the book. The ending is unpredictable (of course) and for throughout the novel I could almost imagine Flannery and Lowell sharing correspondences of this nature. As a reader, I could only hoot again and again for the written word and I hope that more people read this gem of a book.