These are novels in which some, or all, of the story is told through an exchange of letters, memos, telegrams, or diary/journal entries. These are some of my favorites:
- Lady Susan by Jane Austen (1871): Thanks to my friend Ann Davison for introducing me to this book. The story revolves around the manipulative and charming widow Lady Susan Vernon, who seeks advantageous marriages for both herself and her young daughter. Through a series of letters, it reveals her schemes and the effect they have on her family and acquaintances.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897): This classic Gothic horror novel, much told through diary and journal entries, tells the story of Count Dracula’s attempt to move from Transylvania to England in order to spread the undead curse and the battle between Dracula and a small group of people led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing.
- Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (1942): This novel is a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, advising him on how to secure the damnation of a British man known only as “the Patient”.
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964): This children’s novel follows the adventures of Harriet M. Welsch, an 11-year-old aspiring writer who spies on her neighbors and classmates. Harriet’s life turns upside down when her secret notebook with candid observations about her peers is discovered.
- The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright (2007): This novel unveils the story of Jack and Laurel Cooper, a couple who wrote letters to each other every Wednesday throughout their marriage. Their children discover these letters and family secrets after their parents’ unexpected deaths.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008): Set in the aftermath of World War II, this epistolary novel explores the experiences of writer Juliet Ashton and her correspondence with the residents of Guernsey, who formed a book club during the German occupation.
- The Wedding Letters by Jason F. Wright (2011): A sequel to The Wednesday Letters (above), this novel centers around the wedding preparations of Noah and Rachel, including a family tradition of writing letters to the couple, which reveal deep family secrets and insights.
- Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Martha Semple (2013): his contemporary novel follows 15-year-old Bee as she tries to track down her agoraphobic mother, Bernadette, who disappears before a family trip to Antarctica, using a trail of emails, official documents, and secret correspondence.
- Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngsen (2019): I loved this story of Tina Hopgood, a farmer’s wife in England, who begins a correspondence with Anders Larsen, a museum curator in Denmark, leading to a profound and transformative friendship.
- The Lost Manuscript by Cathy Bonidan (2021): It may be a stretch to call this an epistolary novel, but I enjoyed it so much. It revolves around a mysterious manuscript found in the drawer of a nightstand in a Brittany hotel. The finder embarks on a quest to discover the author and the story behind the manuscript, connecting with a chain of people who have been touched by it.
I’ll be adding to this list, but if you want a larger selection, see “100 Must-Read Epistolary Novels From The Past and Present.”
These are nonfiction books I’ve enjoyed in which some, or all, of the narrative is told through an exchange of letters, memos, telegrams, or diary/journal entries.
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1927): This is a collection of ten letters written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old officer cadet and aspiring poet. In these letters, Rilke offers deep and insightful advice on the nature of art, creativity, and the journey of personal and artistic discovery.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947) by Anne Frank: This poignant diary chronicles her life in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. The diary offers a deeply personal and heart-wrenching account of a young girl’s hopes, fears, and experiences during one of history’s darkest periods.
- 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970): This is a lovely and poignant collection of letters between Helene Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co, a bookstore in London. Their correspondence spans two decades and reflects a deep bond formed over their shared love of books.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015): Written as a letter to his teenage son, this book by Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the realities of being Black in America. It delves into the country’s history of racism and the ongoing struggle for racial justice, blending personal narrative, reimagined history, and cultural analysis.
- From Me To You by Brian Greenley and Alison Hitchcock. When Brian is diagnosed with cancer, Alison, a casual acquaintance, begins sending him letters to offer support and companionship during his treatment. Their exchange blossoms into a deep friendship, showcasing the power of human connection and the impact of compassion and empathy during challenging times.
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