Epistolary Novels in the 21st Century

If you ever took an English class that covered the history of literature, you very likely spent at least a few minutes on epistolary novels, or novels written as a series of documents, traditionally letters. The examples that spring to my mind are the classics, such as Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (c. 1740) and Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos (c. 1782). However I’ve been rather surprised and delighted to find the genre is still going strong, evolving alongside our forms of communication, ranging from from historical novels where characters exchange letters to contemporary fiction using emails, text messages, tweets and more. 


As a Seattleite one of my favorite modern epistolary novels is Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Ostensibly compiled by Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter Bee, the reader is treated to an ensemble of emails and school reports that chronicle Bernadette’s descent into agoraphobia, fights with fellow private-school mothers, exasperated disdain for Seattle, and disappearance. It’s hilarious, but also really makes a valid point about Seattle’s 5-way intersections.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schmacher is an epistolary comedy of academic life, as a professor bemoans the lack of funding for the English department. Nestled like jewels in the text are a series of increasingly ridiculous emails of recommendation for former students. In Alyson Foster’s novel God is an Astronaut, botany professor Jess finds her life opened to the world when a disaster at her husband’s space tourism company brings a documentary film team into their lives.

The Spy by Paulo Coelho is the story of courtesan and suspected spy Mata Hari as told through imagined letters she writes to her lawyer and daughter from prison.

In Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco a student investigates his mentor’s supposed suicide. Piecing together the mentor’s writings, plus interviews, emails, blogs, and a biography-in-process, the reader gets a multi-generational saga intertwined with 150 years of Philippine history.

Hey Harry, Hey Matilda by Rachel Hulin is the story, told through emails,  of twins Harry and Matilda Goodman as they navigate their 30s, romance, and a really big lie. For a rom-com, try The Boy is Back by Meg Cabot, in which celebrity golfer Reed Stewart moves back to his hometown and reignites a flirtation with business owner Becky Flowers.

~ posted by Andrea G.

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