Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Frances and Bernard

I'm a sucker for a good epistolary novel. I know some people have a general aversion to them, but when done well (see exhibit A) I find them to be one of the most compelling ways of structuring a story. And it just so happens that the latest one I've come across, Frances and Bernard, is done very, very well.

Spanning the decade between 1957 and 1968, Frances and Bernard is made up of letters between two twenty-something writers who meet at a summer writer’s colony and strike up a correspondence. Frances is a middle class, Irish-American girl who works on her first novel while living at home with her family in Philadelphia. Bernard comes from a WASP-y Boston family and works on a poetry collection while teaching writing to undergraduates at Harvard. Initially coming together over shared artistic sensibilities, Frances and Bernard also find they share the same religion—both are Catholics, Frances having been raised one, Bernard having converted as an adult. In their letters, they discuss their religious beliefs in a way that's both philosophical and earnest. With debates about books and witty banter added to the mix, their earliest letters to each other are thoroughly thought provoking and entertaining.

In later years, Frances and Bernard both find themselves living in New York City. Letters between each of them and their respective best friends offer us a glimpse into their lives during this period, when their friendship has moved off of the page and into real life. A turning point comes when Bernard, who has long struggled with shadowy bouts of depression, has a breakdown that results in his hospitalization. He eventually recovers, but finds that he has lost all of his religious faith. Although this change breaks one of the most important shared bonds between Frances and Bernard, their relationship actually grows stronger and takes a romantic turn. Here the novel becomes more poignant, as Bernard's  continued mental relapses combined with Frances's insistence on foregoing a traditional marriage to devote herself to writing make it clear that a future together is not to be.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Author Carlene Bauer has created one of the most simultaneously engaging and moving stories I've read in a while. Every other page seemed to reveal a new passage or line that stopped me in my tracks with either beautiful writing or interesting ideas (and often a combination of both). And, as it's apparently very loosely based on the real life correspondence between Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, it has me itching to dive into some of their works now.

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