Elizabeth 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:
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.
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.
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?