GS vs STA: Epistolary Romances

The Boy Next Door - Meg CabotElizabeth sent me an email asking about epistolary romances – romances told in the format of letters: 

I was wondering if there have ever been any successful epistolatory romance novels, or really any romances that play with form beyond telling the story in the first person. I have read first person narrative romances, but they didn't seem to work as well as standard third person storytelling. Perhaps the third person narrative is a core generic convention? Does anyone care about this besides me?

I had to think about it after I read her email. I know of two that are told via email exchanges nearly entirely, but epitolary romances were harder to think of. There are some with strong romantic elements – or mild romantic elements – including some of my favorite books, but I wouldn't call them “romances” per se.

Several pieces of classic literature are epistolary, though in terms of defining romances that use this structure, I am sticking with the more modern (contemporary? recent?) concept of the romance novel. That said, according to the Wikipedia article, “It is thought that her lost novel “First Impressions”, which was redrafted to become Pride and Prejudice, may have been epistolary: Pride and Prejudice contains an unusual number of letters quoted in full and some play a critical role in the plot.” 

For example, here are some epistolary novels that are romances, or that may appeal to the romance reader: 

 PO Box Love by Paola Calvetti ( A | BN | K | S | ARe )

This book, according to the promotional materials I received, was a big ol' hit in Europe, but when I tried to read it, I was unable to really become absorbed in the story. It's told via some exchanges of letters, and some narration, and is about a bookshop owner in Milan named Emma, who specialises in romance novels. My kind of lady! 

The people I know who have read this book and loved it were enchanted with the language and pace of the novel. Because so much of the novel focuses on bygone habits, like writing long letters – on paper, with a pen! – they loved the feeling of timelessness about it. I wasn't, alas, able to get into it, but when Elizabeth asked about novels told via letter writing, this one popped into my mind first. 

The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot ( A | BN | K | S | ARe )

This book is told entirely via email. The whole thing – and it's very funny. I liked this book a lot, including, as I wrote in my review of “Goodnight Tweetheart,” (which is partially told in tweets) “the weird part where the villain is running down the stairs and the heroine is on her laptop in the stairwell typing that the villain is running down the stairs. OMG… pick your laptop up and run, girl!”

Via Goodreads: “Gossip columnist and single New York City girl Mel lives lives in the most exciting place in the world, yet she's bored with her lovelife. But things get interesting fast when the old lady next door is nearly murdered. Mel starts paying closer attention to her neighbors—what exactly is going on with the cute boy next door? Has Mel found the love of her life—or a killer?

It's not solely a romance, but it's a fun book to read. This is one of those stories that's very easy to drop into without meaning to. If I pick up my copy, I read a page, then suddenly it's an hour later and I'm still reading. Oops. 

Rocki St. Claire's Hit Reply ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) is also told through email and IM, and features a several characters reconnecting through a website.

There are also books like Bridget Jones's Diary, which are told in diary entries – not quite letters. The benefit of an epistolary story for me is when there are multiple writers so I experience multiple points of view. For that reason, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff ( A | BN | K | S) and Love Letters by AR Gurney are two of my favorite works. The first is a novel, and the second is a play. I was stage manager for a production of Love Letters in college. Even though I had to see the play about 15 to 20 times start to finish, it never got old for me, and I cried at the end every time. And I can't forget The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, another book with a romantic theme, also told in letters.

What have I forgotten? I'm sure it's a considerable list. What epistolary romances or romantic stories would you recommend as must-reads, and why?


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sycorax says:

    In my early teens I loved Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs – a collection of letters written by an orphan to the mystery man who is paying for her to attend college. It has strong romantic elements but is perhaps not a romance. I was not enough of an experienced reader to predict the ending, and I was so surprised and delighted by the last letter in the book.

  2. 2

    It’s so funny, but I don’t really like the concept of a story told entirely through letters/emails/tweets/texts, but then, when I read that type of communication in a book, it tends to be my favorite part.

    Like in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” (I know, I know, don’t judge), my absolute favorite parts had nothing to do with the sex, and everything to do with the emails.

    Or one of my favorite novels of all time, “I’ve Got Your Number” by Sophie Kinsella, has a significant amount of communication via text message—and it’s so poignant and perfect and amazing that I was actually crying at the end. Crying! At text messages!

    But those are both recent books, and I think there’s something interesting about the way we communicate electronically nowadays. There’s safety behind a screen, no matter what device you’re using, and I think it leads people to be a little more honest, a little more revealing, a little more … *more*. The same implied anonymity that lets crap like the GRBullies site exist also allows for some amazingly human interaction—through a very non-human medium.

    But then again, maybe I’m biased, since my relationship with my husband was almost entirely founded in texts, IM’s, and emails. (What can I say? He’s a tech guy.)

  3. 3
    Kaetrin says:

    I have Almost Like Being In Love by Steve Kluger on my TBR. It has a 4.22 rating on Goodreds and I’ve heard good things about it, but haven’t read it yet. It’s a m/m epistolary romance.

  4. 4
    Lori says:

    More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton is written entirely in the form of letters and emails. It’s a lovely read.

  5. 5
    miz-geek says:

    Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore is a historical novel with strong romantic elements.  Takes place in colonial Boston and is very much in the style of a picaresque 18th century novel.  I enjoyed it, but I can’t remember how it ends so I can’t vouch for the HEA.  Her side is mostly letters, but his side is more journal/ memoir.

  6. 6
    Rij says:

    Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevemer. It’s not really a romance novel I suppose but it was the first thing that came to mind. Wonderful book, told entirely in letters. It’s set in alternate regency where magic is real. The letter writers are both young women, the other having a season in London while the other is back in the countryside. Both have adventures with magic and mysterious men and love.

  7. 7
    Marissa Fortin says:

    GS:  “My Dearest Enemy” by Connie Brockway.

  8. 8
    cleo says:

    I was going to recommend Sorcery and Cecelia too. I love that book – it’s been one of my comfort reads for almost 20 years.  Both heroines end up with a hero and hea, but the romance is understated.  It’s a lovely, lovely book.

  9. 9
    KarenF says:

    Someone mentioned “Daddy Long Legs” above … I also loved “Dear Enemy” by the same author (Jean Webster).  Also, since they are in public domain, you can find them for free in e -form (well, I grabbed free versions on my Nook – I haven’t checked other e-readers).

    It’s not a romance, but “e” by Matt Beaumont is a great comedy, about a seriously dysfunctional Ad Agency, told all in company and private emails (there’s a “love story” with a couple of the characters in there, but it’s not the point of the book).

    I also loved 84 Charing Cross road (and her follow up, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury”) – but neither are novels, they’re memoirs.

    “Feeling Sorry for Celia”  (Jaclyn Moriarty) is a cute YA novel told all in notes the heroine writes to herself, back and forth between herself and her mom, to her (female) pen pal at another school, and to and from her secret admirer.

  10. 10
    Amber says:

    Off topic because it’s obviously not a romance, but this entry made me remember the book “Dear Mr. Henshaw” by Beverly Cleary. I was extremely moved by that book and I felt like the epistolary format enhanced its impact. Anyway, thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite novels as a child!

  11. 11
    Nicolette says:

    My first thought was “Sorcery and Cecelia”, which has already been mentioned.  Twice.  So I’ll just add in a third recommendation. 

    There’s also Med Cabot’s “Every Boy’s Got One”, which isn’t epistolary, but a series of diary entries.  I prefer it to “The Boy Next Door”.

    The third book I thought of is AS Byatt’s “Possession”. It isn’t really epistolary though. It does feature letters between the historical protagonists, butt it’s full of poetry and normal prose story telling as well.  And it’s not strictly a romance in the HEA sense of the term.  There is a HFN for the modern protagonists, but not for the historical pair.

  12. 12
    Jenny Dolton says:

    It’s been ages since I read Julia Quinn’s To Sir Phillip With Love (at least I think that’s the title), but I do remember that the relationship started out with letter-writing. I just can’t remember how much of the book actually *was* the letter writing before she runs off to meet him. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly recommend it, because while I love Julia Quinn in general, I didn’t particularly enjoy it and banished it from my bookshelf (hense the not-remembering).

    Definitely agree with the recommendation for 84 Charing Cross Road—not a romance, but it is absolutely amazing.

    And when I was in library school, one of my classmates told me about Ella Minnow Pea, which she found to be great fun and recommended for anyone who loves words and word-play, but I haven’t read it, and I don’t believe it has any strong romantic elements.

  13. 13
    Ellen says:

    Not exactly what you are looking for, but I must put a plug in for one of my newer “comfort” and “all time favorite” reads, Attachments by Rainbown Rowell. 
    The book is premised on e-mails and one man’s job of having to read e-mails that get thrown in to a corporate questionable e-mail file to be reviewed.  One of the most touching books I have read in a long time.  While the e-mails don’t dominate the book, they certainly inform the action and are pivotal to the relationship.  And the last few pages of this book are the most romantic writing I have read in a very long time.  I just think of that book and my insides melt.

  14. 14
    Ellen says:

    And of course that should be Rainbow, not Rainbown.

  15. 15
    Becamouse says:

    Meg Cabot’s Boy Meets Girl is a combo of emails, memos, notes, IMs, voicemails, and even a “if you sprinkle…” sign in the office toilet (yes – it’s a relevant part of the narrative!) Like your response to Boy Next Door, this is a book I very easily get sucked into without realizing.
    Plus, I think she also wrote one set in Italy (name escapes me!) and two enemies planning their best friends’ wedding while simultaneously realizing that they’re falling in love themselves? She seems to do this type of storytelling very well.
    I’m sure I have others on my shelf, but can’t get to them as moving and have boxes packed in the way of my bookshelf.

  16. 16
    riga says:

    That’s exactly what I was coming in here to rec. It is one of my favorite books of all time.

  17. 17
    Jazzlet says:

    Sorcery And Cecelia fans, there are now two sequels, one set on the the Grand Tour honeymoon the two couples take, called The Grand Tour and one ten years later called The Mislaid magician. Both epistolary, both as good as Sorcery and Ceclia.

    I loved Daddy-Long-Legs as a very yound teenager.

    Finally the film of 84 Charing Cross Road is I think rather good.

  18. 18

    Lucy Talk by Fiona Walker is a chick-litty romance that’s told in a combination of letters, e-mails, diary entries, postcards, notes left on the refrigerator door, village fliers, etc. There’s no “narrative,” just all these items that come together to tell the story, with a few twists regarding who’s really on the other end of some of the communications. I’ve re-read it a few times because it takes on a new meaning once you know who’s really writing, and it’s really sweet and fun. Though I don’t know how hard it might be to find. I bought it on vacation in England more than a decade ago.

    An epistolary novel is on my literary bucket list of things I want to write, but it can be difficult to pull off when there’s any kind of action or suspense because it loses immediacy. You know if the person is telling the events in a letter that the writer either survived or became a literal ghost writer. Which would be a fun twist—the handwriting suddenly changes and the letter says, “Sorry about the interruption. I was killed, but now I’ve found someone I can get to channel me.”

  19. 19
    Jessica_HookEm says:

    I loved Boy Next Door, Every Boy’s Got One, and Boy Meets Girl.  Every Boy’s Got One is told via emails, diary entries, receipts, letters, and PDA notes.  Basically every form of communication we receive in our ever day lives, at least back in 2005.  Boy Meets Girl and The Boy Next Door are both told via email.  I’m biased because I’ve always really enjoyed Meg Cabot’s books but I adore these three.  Of the books that I shipped to myself in my move across the country last month, they were part of the first ones I packed because I was that certain that I wanted to keep them forever.  They’re hilarious and charming and romancey.  I love them!

  20. 20
    azc says:

    Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly.

  21. 21

    If I may, I can plug a novel formerly published via my original publisher, Drollerie, and recently republished by Dragonwell: The Chocolatier’s Wife, by Cindy Lynn Speer. This thing says fantasy on the tin, but the heart of the plot is actually a murder mystery, and there’s a huge romantic element to the plot since the setting is a couple of nations where people know who their destined spouses will be pretty much from birth.

    In the case of our heroine and hero, they get to know one another via letters exchanged throughout their lives, and these letters are quoted extensively at the beginning of all the chapters. They were among my favorite bits of the book. :)

    My review of the original Drollerie edition is over here:…

    And if you want to scarf a copy, print or electronic, you can do so here: http://publishing.dragonwell.o…

  22. 22
    Tania Kennedy says:

    I came here to recommend those. They’re more about the friendship of the two letter writers than their romances, but there is definitely romance! The following novels are about their married lives, and follow the same format.

  23. 23
    Wendy Barron says:

    I thought it was Sense and Sensibility whose first draft was epistolary, not Pride and Prejudice. But Austen wrote a lot of epistolary stuff in her early days. And her Lady Susan is a brilliant example of how it’s done.

  24. 24
    Samantha T says:

    Holly’s Inbox by Holly Denham is another one written in emails and notes. It’s less romance-focused than the others mentioned so far but well worth a read.

  25. 25
    JaneDrew says:

    This is exactly what I was going to mention! So glad I’m not the only one who loves this—not only is it in the form of letters, but the two authors originally created the story when playing the “letter game”—each actually writing a letter to the other in the persona of their chosen character. Reading the book knowing that, you can totally see how they are picking up on elements of the other person’s letters and weaving them into their own part of the plot.

  26. 26
    RLA says:

    Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern (AKA Love, Rosie) is told in the form of letters, emails, text messages, invitations, newspaper articles, etc. I know it’s not strictly a romance, but its a really enjoyable book.

  27. 27
    Barb in Maryland says:

    Can’t believe no one has mentioned one of my all-time favorites ” The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”.  It is not twee at all (as the title may suggest), but set right after WWII on Guernsey and deals with life on that island during the German occupation.  Great letters, lovely romance, poignant in parts, with a wonderful happy ending.  I love this book to pieces.

  28. 28
    daffiney says:

    When I was in high school, “Daddy Long Legs” taught me how to write letters—back when we all wrote letters.

    I haven’t been a big fan of epistolary novels since then, but “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” totally changed my mind. It tells a great story (along with a very charming romance) using letters from several characters with very distinctive voices. It’s a wonderful read.

  29. 29
    Stephanie says:

    The Ghosts of Ashbury High by Jaclyn Moriarty

  30. 30
    Barb says:

    “My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park” by Steven Kluger.  Charming young adult novel about a group of teens (and their parents) that tell their story through letters and messages.

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