Monday, February 4, 2013

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” –John Donne

Frances and Bernard
by Carlene Bauer

I love letters—both writing and receiving them. It’s a lost art, and an intimate form of communication. Perhaps it is these feelings that make me especially receptive to the epistolary novel. The obvious has only occurred to me recently, but I flat-out love them. Where’d You Go, Bernadette?; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; and The Lawgiver were all favorite reads within the last few months. Epistolary novels have an unusual structure. For me, it’s just an exceptionally interesting and non-linear way to tell a story.

The other thing is, our voices come alive in our correspondence. Within the first few pages of Frances and Bernard, I’d fallen in love with both of the titular characters. I could hear their voices so clearly through the letters they wrote. They were funny, intellectual, literate—no wonder these two hit it off immediately when they met at a writers’ colony in 1957. Frances is a novelist, not yet published, and Bernard, a poet, with a bit more of a track record. The book follows their correspondence for just over a decade.

According to the novel’s jacket copy, these two are loosely based upon Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. May I be honest? I don’t know a thing about these literary progenitors. I’m sure an intimate knowledge of O’Connor and Lowell’s history and work would have added untold richness to my read. However, my ignorance detracted nothing as far as I can tell, and made their story feel completely fresh and unexpected to me.

Truthfully, I’m rather surprised by just how much I liked this debut. It should be noted that a significant percentage of Frances and Bernard’s correspondence with each other deals with matters of Catholicism and faith—not my favorite subject matter. For me, this tale was ALL about the two central characters that were so beautifully realized by Carlene Bauer. What is the nature of their connection, and where will it lead? Bernard writes to his best friend:
“You have posited that she may have, your words, a thing for me, but I don’t think she does, and I am fairly sure that I don’t have one for her. I kept looking at her from different angles and examining my response. Various types of affection flared up in her presence, but not romance.”
Don’t expect the typical boy-meets-girl tale. Later he writes to the same friend, “…she knew me when I was at my most Bernard and I knew her when she was at her most Frances.” I ask you, who wouldn’t want to be known like that?

1 comment:

  1. 'Letters mingle souls' love it! 84 Charring Cross Road has always been an absolute favourite of mine - reading other people's letters; reading between the lines, the odd unguarded remark that gives deeper insight into the character of the writer. Who wouldn't be fascinated?