GIve me Epistolary NOvels
August 10, 2017 8:15 PM   Subscribe

I've been hankering for some stories written in the form of letters, diary entries, and related literary detritus of late. Can anybody recommend good ones? I've read Dracula, lots of Lovcraft, and the Newbury-winning Nothing but the Truth.

I have a soft spot for diary entries and letters in particular, there are some segments of the Aubrey-Maturin series which are excerpts from Maturin's diary, or official reports and the like, and I devour them eagerly. I'm open to most genres, and would be particularly curious if any variants of the form show up in fantasy or sci-fi contexts. Please tell me what you think of your recommendations if possible, I'd love good ones!
posted by Alensin to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos is really fun and action packed (well, sex and intrigue packed). Take a look at the Epistolary Novels category in Wikipedia, it includes fictional diaries.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Griffin and Sabine, for sure. It is delightful and beautiful. And a little speculative.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Sorcery & Cecilia (and sequels) is a lot of fun.
posted by bq at 8:28 PM on August 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is written in multiple genres, but the opening and closing sections are journal entries, and the second and penultimate sections are letters. It's also an excellent and masterful book.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:28 PM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Ella Minnow Pea is all letters between various townspeople as, one by one, letters of the alphabet are banned from use. It's a quick, fun read.
posted by dorey_oh at 8:30 PM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams includes a lot of epistolary-type material.
posted by bq at 8:31 PM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell explores the art of storytelling and several sections (including the first two I believe) are written as diary entries or letters.

Aaaaaand in preview Paterbeat me to it. It really is a great book though.
posted by cyphill at 8:31 PM on August 10, 2017

Jane Austen's juvenile work Love and Freindship remains amazing.
posted by Hypatia at 8:38 PM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman, about a young teacher's experience in a New York City high school. Great book, and still relevant today, from what I understand from my teacher friends.
posted by holborne at 8:41 PM on August 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Oh my goodness, have you ever read Frankenstein? You are really lucky if you're going to be able to read Frankenstein for the first time.
posted by flourpot at 8:41 PM on August 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

I came here to recommend "Sorcery and Cecelia" also. Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw is another Newbery winner.
posted by epj at 8:43 PM on August 10, 2017

Take a look at Bob Randall's THE FAN, if you'd be interested in a fun, trashy, epistolary novel. It's a thriller set in 1970s NYC involving a Broadway star and a deranged stalker.
posted by Mr. Justice at 8:55 PM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not a novel, but a classic science fiction short story: "That Only a Mother," by Judith Merrill.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:59 PM on August 10, 2017

English Passengers is a book with multiple points of view, told partially, but not entirely, in letters. It's about the British colonization of Australia, specifically Tasmania. It's a tragic story, but contains a lot of humor. Shortlisted for the Booker prize. Very, very engaging.
posted by zorseshoes at 9:13 PM on August 10, 2017

The second book of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, is a spy story told through letters and journal entries. This series is my favorite thing from Stephenson, both dense and spectacular. It's more history than sf or fantasy but the focus on science and alchemy give it a similar feel.
posted by irisclara at 9:24 PM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is hilarious and a quick, awesome read.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:28 PM on August 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Ooh! I forgot about diaries and was just thinking about letters, so I now get to recommend Marilynne Robinson's Gilead for the second time in one day- it is diary entries and so lovely and quietly wonderful.

And We Need To Talk About Kevin-Lionel Shriver, which is the narrator's letters to her husband. It is really good but terrifying and basically the opposite of the other two I have mentioned.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:40 PM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a charming, delightful read. I've reread it quite a few times and it always cheers me up.
posted by Nieshka at 9:46 PM on August 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
posted by The World Famous at 9:50 PM on August 10, 2017

Daddy Long Legs, though it's a one-person epistolary novel.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:57 PM on August 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

84 Charing Cross Road is a classic, though it's not fiction, so not a novel, per se. It's been made into a play and a film, but it reads as if it were a novel.

+1 for Nieshka's Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.

Also, the first epistolary novel I ever read was A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. I still remember the final lines, and I read it almost four decades ago.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 10:15 PM on August 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

Many of the earliest novels were epistolary. Pamela, Clarissa, Evelina...
posted by praemunire at 10:45 PM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is a recent novel presented as a fantastical version of an early historical Alaskan expedition. There's actually two timelines; the historical timeline is told as journal entries by the leader of the expedition and his stuck-at-home military wife, and the modern timeline is an exchange of letters between their great nephew and a museum curator discussing the journals. (Oddly, it was the modern timeline that made me cry.) It's a lovely book; well worth reading.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 10:55 PM on August 10, 2017

The Woman in White, a great Victorian thriller by Wilkie Collins, is written as though it's been "assembled" by the hero of the story, who is trying to piece together exactly what happens. So he gets affidavits, diary entries, letters, scraps of autobiography from the various characters involved to move the story along, depending on who was around at the time. (His The Moonstone, which I didn't like quite as much, also works this way.)
posted by Polycarp at 11:12 PM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Dear Committee Members is one of the funniest books I've read in years.
posted by diamondsky at 11:12 PM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, and its two sequels. Far better than the film versions, and the first in particular really shows a certain slice of late 90s London.

Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series, which are written as diaries by the often insufferable Adrian, are also a deeply funny British-lit classic.

Bit left of centre: the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, documenting their scandalous and tragic love affair. They're historical documents from the Middle Ages, but nevertheless seminal in the field of epistolary works, given they've been edited and presented together for many many years. Summary of the story here. There are many editions of the letters in English, including Penguin classics and similar.
posted by thetarium at 12:58 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith is very funny and oddly sweet.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:14 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Look. It's not a novel, but it explains so many...

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Annotated Letters.

Here's the details: Hemingway, who loved Fitzgerald, said he was the better writer. Fitzgerald wrote about his life. If you care about literature, then Fitzgerald's letters are salient to your understanding of more than one great American novel. You can't go wrong with Fitzgerald. This book is one I have shipped around the world and back, one of my favorites. I now live 3 houses down from where Scott passed away. It wasn't my intent to live where I do, but it's kinda special.

Hey! Amazon is airing an interpretation of Fitzgerald's The Love of the Last Tycoon, A Western that is a fucking AMAZING interpretation of his unfinished last novel, a bookend to The Great Gatsby. It's an astounding interpretation, better than any Gatsby movie by far. Which tracks for me, since I always felt Tycoon would have been the better novel, if only he had lived to finish it. Hemingway is correct, Fitzgerald is the better writer. Such an irony Hemingway's books translated better into moving pictures. Until now, anyway. We're finally in an age where Fitzgerald's subtext can be displayed plainly.

Read his letters. You will fall in love with Fitzgerald.
posted by jbenben at 1:26 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (mild warning, laura's life was not pleasant, the book also is not)

The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes

Will probably depend a lot on what you think of Twin Peaks.

Random Acts of Senseless Violence - the diary of a 12 year old girl in New York as society collapses. I can't recommend it enough, but it's not a happy read.
posted by curious_yellow at 2:09 AM on August 11, 2017

Also came to mention Austen's "Love and Friendship" (which was actually called Lady Susan so you might find it published under that title).
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:14 AM on August 11, 2017

Possession by A.S. Byatt includes a lot of letters and diary entries. And it's an excellent book.
posted by Redstart at 4:32 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist (and sequels if you like it). It's the journal of Latro, a soldier in ancient Greece, who loses his memory after falling out with the Gods (who he can now see). The book is his notes to remind himself about what he's done and who he is. It's an impressive literary feat although not the easiest of Wolfe's books to read - you have to do a fair amount of work to read through what Latro says to what's going on.
posted by crocomancer at 4:37 AM on August 11, 2017

I'll stick to genre. From the zombie genre, I'd roughly class World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks as qualifying. It's a series of accounts of the zombie apocalypse written by a functionary in the UN. Of course, The Martian by Andy Weir is an account of being stranded on Mars told via "Captain's Logs" dictated to the base computer. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is the story of a woman investigating her family connection to Vlad Tepes (and vampires) where the text of letters is vital to the storytelling.
posted by xyzzy at 4:37 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Freedom and Necessity, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. They're both fantasy writers, but this isn't really fantasy. Still, it's lots of fun.

I'll strongly second Possession and Dangerous Liaisons. I love both books to pieces.
posted by hought20 at 4:39 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst.

There is a "book", but most of the plot is driven by three sets of marginalia written back and forth between two university students plus associated ephemera tucked into the book.
posted by damayanti at 5:03 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Many of the earliest novels were epistolary. Pamela, Clarissa, Evelina...

While this is entirely true, only venture into these high-fiber wastelands with good training, plenty of supplies, and a plan to be picked up by helicopter. Clarissa, in particular, can swallow you up.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:08 AM on August 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

One Thousand White Women is a collection of letters. And it is a fantastic book.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 6:22 AM on August 11, 2017

I agree that Frankenstein is a breathtaking novel! Other epistolary works I have enjoyed rereading:

Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace, The Documents in the Case
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (and also The Woman in White, as suggested above!)
John Updike, S
posted by lasagnaboy at 6:24 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ella Minnow Pea. My post-apocalyptic book club read it and someone quipped that "this is the most quaint dystopia I've ever run into."

Speaking of dystopia and apocalypse - it's been a while since I read it, but I believe Z for Zachariah also is in diary form.

The Color Purple is sort of epistolary, as it's entirely told thorugh sort-of-diary entries which take the form of Celie's unwritten letters - first to God, then to her sister.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:52 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hit "post" too soon.

The Screwtape Letters is more a work of theology, but it's written as a series of letters from a senior-level demon to a trainee demon about how to best do their work.

Flowers for Algernon was a story first, and then a novel; it's a series of diary entries from a man who was the subject of an experimental treatment for enhancing intelligence.

And then there's House of Leaves, which is....uh, honeslty I don't know how the hell to describe it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on August 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Poor Folk by Dostoevsky
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:59 AM on August 11, 2017

So Long a Letter ("Une si longue lettre") by Mariama Ba. A Senegalese woman writes a letter to a friend about her life after her husband took on a second wife.
posted by icemill at 7:14 AM on August 11, 2017

Saint Mazie (NPR review) by Jami Attenberg is a fictional biography of Mazie Phillips Gordon written as a combination of diary entries by Mazie and letters about her. It's funny, sad, feminist and terrific.

Here's the Amazon Best Book of June 2015 blurb:
Mazie Phillips was a depression-era movie-theater-owner in New York during the Depression; she was big-hearted and bawdy, enough of a neighborhood figure that she became the subject of a 1940 New Yorker profile by the journalist Joseph Mitchell. Starting with his observations—“Mazie has a genuine fondness for bums and undoubtedly knows more bums than any other person in the city”—Attenberg weaves an astonishingly heartfelt story of poverty and loss (one of Mazie’s beloved, orphaned sisters moves to California to become a dancer and is essentially lost to her forever), unconventionality (there’s a lot of socially “inappropriate” sex and love in this book) and, to use a word from that era, “moxie.” With all her tough talk and bootstrap-pulling, Mazie could grow into a cliché – the loose woman with a heart of gold – but Attenberg never lets her, preferring instead to take Mitchell’s sketch and draw all over it with fictional interviews and diaries until Mazie becomes a complex and irresistible real-life woman. She may have lived in a very specific era, but thanks to Attenberg, she has become a character for the ages.
Bonus: Helena Bonham Carter is making this into a television miniseries.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:30 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding Woman in White and The Documents in the Case. The latter isn't really very well known but it is a great Sayers (not Wimsey) novel and a lot of fun to read.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 7:45 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

While this is entirely true, only venture into these high-fiber wastelands with good training, plenty of supplies, and a plan to be picked up by helicopter. Clarissa, in particular, can swallow you up.

These were all popular hits!!!
posted by praemunire at 8:51 AM on August 11, 2017

In sci-fi, there is Octavia E. Butler's Earthseed "series" (two books that were supposed to be a trilogy). The first novel in it, Parable of the Sower, is written as diary entries from one person, and the second, Parable of the Talents, is a combination of diary entries from three different people. It's also eerily prescient!
posted by urbanlenny at 10:43 AM on August 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Harry Mathews, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. Made up of letters between a husband and wife. This isn't exactly SF but it's funny & paranoid in a way some SF I like is, and I'd shelve it with other weird fiction & some grotesque future visions (Jonathan Lethem, Rikki Ducornet, PK Dick).
posted by miles per flower at 11:09 AM on August 11, 2017

Anne Brontë's Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an epistolary novel and a great read. Shocking for its time because it deals with alcoholism and marriage breakup.
posted by altolinguistic at 11:11 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Out of the House of Life is corollary to the Saint-Germain series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It's classified as horror simply because it has vampires, but what it really is, is historical fiction as told by a vampire. This book is set in early 19th century Egypt where one vampire is on an archaeological dig, and St. Germain writes long letters about his early vampiric life in ancient Egypt where he transitions from the bestial to become a healer in the Temple of Imhotep. It's just fascinating.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:14 AM on August 11, 2017

There are several Sandra Dallas books that fit the bill, if you're interested in that kind of novel. The Diary of Mattie Spencer and Alice's Tulips are the first two that come to mind.

And of course, if you haven't read it, Bram Stoker's Dracula.
posted by gideonfrog at 1:34 PM on August 11, 2017

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente is a sci-fi alternate history where the solar system was colonized in the early 20th century, everyone travels in rockets, and Hollywood is on the Moon.

It follows a documentarian who went missing while filming on Venus, and the non-linear narrative is pieced together through gossip columns, letters, screenplays, film criticism, etc. It's beautiful and haunting and takes a little time to come together, but the work is worth it.
posted by 1UP at 3:11 PM on August 11, 2017

I just picked up Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters from the library today. It just came out last month. I can't vouch for it yet as I've only read the first couple of pages but it looks funny and good!
(I also love these types of books--SO MANY great suggestions here!)
posted by bookmammal at 4:14 PM on August 11, 2017

Steve Kluger writes in this form frequently - both adult and young adult. My favourite is Last Days of Summer, about a boy and a baseball player. It's wonderful.
posted by jb at 9:27 PM on August 11, 2017

Cosign Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Not sci-fi or fantasy, but do yourself the favor.
posted by kensington314 at 9:43 AM on August 12, 2017

Yesterday by Felicia Yap.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:39 PM on August 14, 2017

Oh man, I am not normally a sci-fi/fantasy person but I was SO into Sleeping Giants. Not letters, but diary entries and interview transcripts. Totally absorbing.
posted by whodatninja at 3:29 PM on August 14, 2017

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