Dear Reader: My Love of the Epistolary

Woman Reading in a Forest by Gyula Benzur

Woman Reading in a Forest by Gyula Benzur

It’s time for another bookish confession: I have a weakness for Epistolary novels. Actually, weakness might not be the right word to describe my relationship with this form of writing…. It’s more like I’m Superman, and the Epistolary novel is my Kryptonite. No matter how ugly the cover or terrible the synopsis, the moment that I discover a book is told primarily through letters or diary entries I grow weak at the knees. Whenever I read an Epistolary novel, I’m almost guaranteed to give it at least a half a star rating higher then a regular novel. There is just something about reading a story through correspondence that I find absolutely irresistible. Maybe it’s the thrill of feeling like I’m sneaking a peek at documents that are typically kept private, or the intimacy of looking over a character’s shoulder as they bare their soul in their journal, but I just can’t get enough!

I’m not the only one to adore the Epistolary novel. In fact, in the 18th Century the Epistolary novel was King. Originating with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or virtue rewarded (1740), (which is often called the “first English novel”) the popularity of  the Epistolary form soared until the early 19th century. Even Jane Austen experimented with the Epistolary in her short novel Lady Susan, although it wasn’t published until long after her death. In a society that relied heavily on letters as the only means of communication, it shouldn’t be surprising that novels composed entirely of correspondence should be popular.


A scene from Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Since the 18th century, however, the Epistolary novel has undergone some pretty drastic changes. Very rarely are Epistolary novels written in this century composed of letters. In a world that now relies on the internet and cell phones as the main method of communication, I find it fascinating how the Epistolary novel has continued to adapt. The modern Epistolary novel is full instant messaging, texting, emailing, and even social media!

As someone who personally loves receiving handwritten messages in the mail (it’s almost a lost art form now), I am somewhat disheartened by this change in style, but I’m not going to lie…. reading a book composed of emails is still just as addicting as reading a collection of letters! I actually remember the first book I ever picked up that was composed entirely of emails (Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door), and thinking, “WOW this is bloody brilliant!”

So long story short, my name is Natalie and I’m an Epistolaryholic. I’ll continue to gorge myself on these novels until the day I die. I’m looking forward to seeing how this genre continues to grow and adapt to fit the changing world around it. I’ve already got my eye on the next Epistolary novel that I plan on reading: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Until then, here are some famous/popular Epistolary novels that I have read and loved.

Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson
The mother of English Epistolary novels. Written as a series of letters, Pamela tells the story of a young girl who works as a maid for nobleman known as Mr. B. Now people often make the mistake of assuming that novels from the 18th century are pious, straight laced, and boring. Far from it! The story of Pamela is full of lust, sex, and corruption. Mr. B becomes OBSESSED with Pamela. Unable to marry her due to her low station in life, he kidnaps her, locks her in one of his estates, and attempts to seduce and rape her. At one point he even dresses up as a maid to crawl into her bed one night. Yup. Talk about crazy!


Frankenstein (1818) by  Mary Shelley
This novel really needs no introduction. Frankenstein is a classic, and one that I have read several times over the years. The story is framed through a series of letters that a sea captain writes home while recording Victor Frankenstein’s dying narrative. I can’t recommend this novel enough!


Flowers for Algernon (1966) by Daniel Keyes
After discovering a treatment that can drastically enhance the intelligence of a mouse named Algernon, scientists decide to test out their findings on a human subject. Charlie Gordon is selected for the trial, a 32 year-old man suffering from a Phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder that results in an intellectual disability. The treatment is initially considered a success, as Charlie’s IQ rises from 82 to 182 in just a short time span. As readers go through Charlie’s progress reports, however, they discover that something is going horribly wrong. Flowers for Algernon is an absolutely fascinating novel that completely blew my mind!


The Colour Purple (1982) by Alice Walker
Most people know The Colour Purple from the film adaptation that was made starring Whoopi Goldberg. Before it was a movie, however, The Colour Purple was a FANTASTIC Epistolary novel! The story is told through the letters that Celie writes to God, and later her sister Nettie. Heartbreaking at times, The Colour Purple is a powerful work of writing that EVERYONE should read at least once.


Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding
Oh Bridget! How you make me laugh! As the title suggests, Bridget Jones’s Diary is told through a series of diary entries that are so funny, I was laughing out loud about 75% of the time that I spent reading it. Even if you have already seen the movie, make the time to read the book!


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky
This book is like a rite of passage for teenagers. Set in Chicago during the early 90s, the novel follows Charlie during his first year at high school. Initially finding it hard to fit in, Charlie undergoes some pretty amazing growth as the story unfolds. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is probably one of the best coming of age stories that I have ever read. It’s absolutely amazing!


The Boy Series (2002) by Meg Cabot
A series of three books, these were the first Epistolary novels that I ever read that were composed entirely of emails. Fun and lighthearted, these are some great chick lit reads that will make you chuckle. My favourite book, by far, is The Boy Next Door, which is the first book in the series!


Attachments (2011) by Rainbow Rowell
Attachments is another light and fun chick-lit read that is composed entirely of emails! The story follows Lincoln, the new “internet security officer.” Tasked with the job of reading other people’s emails (to prevent inappropriate conduct), Lincoln finds himself falling in love with Beth. The only problem is that Lincoln has never actually met Beth, and the only way he gets to know her is through the emails that she sends to other people. Cute and funny, Attachments is definitely a book to read when you are in the mood for something lighthearted and charming.


Where’d You Go Bernadette (2012) by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox seems to have it all: a husband with a great job at Microsoft, a genius daughter, and a beautiful home. Despite her every attempt to fit in, however, Bernadette begins to find her life in Seattle more and more claustrophobic. Unable to handle the city anymore, Bernadette disappears without a word. Gathering emails, official documents, and secret correspondence, 15-year-old Bee goes on a hunt to track her mother down, resulting in an addicting and fast-paced read that you won’t be able to put down! I LOVED it!




7 thoughts on “Dear Reader: My Love of the Epistolary

  1. Loved this post, Natalie! I love epistolary novels too and funnily enough, my first one (other than the ones I read during undergrad) was The Boy Next Door! I remember devouring it in a matter of hours and that’s something I’ve noticed about them too; because they’re written in emails and letters, epistolary novels feel a lot shorter.

  2. Yes! I remember reading The Boy Next Door! I admit that I’m not always an epistolary fan but the odd one here and there is acceptable lol. You might like Letters from Skye. I also want to read The Divorce Papers (I thought I had requested it from Random House but it never showed so I guess not!) but had no idea it was an epistolary novel. Interesting!

  3. Don’t know if you like fantasy or not, but Sorcery and Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot By: Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer is a lovely novel told through letters. Its one of my favorites. 🙂

  4. Great suggestions. I love novels that tell their story through letter etc too. I’ll have to check some if these out.

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