By Ashly Moore Sheldon • November 27, 2020
Most of us have read epistolary novels, even if we don't recognize the term. They are books made up partly or entirely of documents, like letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and emails. One thing that makes them so enjoyable is the sense that you're being let in on something private—a guilt-free form of eavesdropping. The experience of reading epistolary novels is like solving a mystery. The reader must draw connections about what is often an incomplete picture. It's like the process of carefully assembling a puzzle to reveal a complex and thrilling portrait. Here are ten epistolary novels we love.
For history-loving authors Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, an epistolary novel served as a great way to collaborate from afar. Each assumed the role of one of the two main characters and their writing process meant exchanging letters back and forth. Their heartfelt historical romance is made up of missives between British journalist Evie Elliot and Lieutenant Thomas Harding, a soldier fighting in France during WWI.
This Man Booker Prize winner by Indian-born writer Aravind Adiga is told in the form of darkly humorous emails. On the occasion of the president of China's impending trip to Bangalore, Balram Halwai writes a letter to him describing the terrible and transfixing tale of his transformation from poor Indian villager to the zenith of Indian business culture. His story is amoral, irreverent, and deeply endearing.
Like Gaynor and Webb (above) authors Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer came up with the idea of exchanging communication as their characters to create this charming, funny middle grade novel. The story centers on two twelve-year-old girls from opposite coasts, who are thrown together when their dads start dating each other. The two begin an email correspondence with the goal of breaking them up.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Alice Walker's iconic modern classic has become a powerful cultural touchstone. The book is made up of letters written by sisters Celie and Nettie, who were separated as children. Spanning twenty years, the novel draws readers into a rich and memorable community of strong Black women. The award-winning film based on the book served as Stephen Spielberg's directorial debut.
Bestselling author Ruth Ware offers a clever update on Henry James's classic horror tale with this unputdownable thriller, where information technology takes the place of ghosts. Written in the form of a letter to her lawyer, Rowan Caine is trying to explain the events leading to her incarceration. After landing her dream job as nanny for an ultra-rich family in Scotland, things go terribly wrong resulting in the death of one of the children in her care.
Poet Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of truth. Written in the form of a letter from a young Vietnamese-American man to his illiterate mother, it is a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Imbued with compassion and tenderness, the timely narrative resonates. At once, the book is about the power of telling one's own story and the obliterating silence of not being heard.
The year is 2575, and with enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—exes who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to evacuate with a hostile warship in hot pursuit. Coauthors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff present their YA fantasy (the first in a series) as a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, interviews, chat transcripts, video logs, and more.
Ruth Ozeki brings a poignant humor to her beguiling story exploring themes of the connections between humanity and the search for home. Nao in Tokyo records her thoughts and experiences in her diary. Bullied at school, the desperately lonely sixteen-year-old has decided to end her life. Across the Pacific, an author living on a remote island discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach. Inside it, she finds a journal.
In the aftermath of a school shooting allegedly perpetrated by her son, Eva reckons with her emotional fallout in letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. She grapples with impossible questions: Was their son born bad? Or did they make him that way? Lionel Shriver's incisive, charged novel demonstrates that the epistolary form is as much about what we don't see, as it is about what we do.
From bestselling author Rainbow Rowell, this novel features an IT employee required to monitor his company's emails for personal use. He comes across two employees, best friends, who email each other all day long. He knows he should turn them in, but amused and intrigued by their stories, he just keeps reading. And then he begins to find himself falling for one of them.
These stories are feeling especially resonant right now as so many of us are working to connect with friends and family from a distance. Epistolary novels often capture the sense of longing we feel as we search for ways to have togetherness in a time of separation. As always, we'd love to hear about your recommendations in this excellent genre.