Awesome Epistolary Novels

There are few things I love more than reading books and writing letters. So, I suppose it makes perfect sense that I adore a good epistolary novel. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, epistolary novels tell their story through a series of letters, diary entries, or documents.

For me, this format evokes a sense of innocent voyeurism akin to finding an old hat box full of letters in an attic. Epistolary novels have a very unique way of making you feel close connections to the characters. You meet them on a personal and emotional level as they reveal portions of themselves often unseen in standard literary formats. They draw you into their private correspondence which was meant for the eyes of one other person. However, you also have to be discerning when viewing events as the character relays them. You become aware of their biases and oversights.

One of the things I love most about epistolary novels is their range. I have read some that were very light and humorous. However, many of them tackle heavier issues in a very plain and honest way. This is the wonderful nature of diaries and letters. Often, we, as humans, say in them those things we won’t say out loud. There is a sense of security in an intimate correspondence that does not exist in spoken conversation.

My personal taste in literature does not delve into the light and mindless reads often. Only on the occasion that I’m attempting to break a reading rut will I dive into something light. For that reason, you will find the books listed below to be of a heavier nature. However, the deal with sensitive and painful topics in a special way. They bring you directly into the world they create and allow you to experience these topics in the same way the character does.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

In this novel, Shriver tackles the very difficult topic of school shootings. After Kevin senselessly kills seven classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria employee his mother, Eva tries to make sense of it all. Through a serious of letters to her estranged husband, she addresses her ambivalence toward motherhood. She examines her son’s life, trying to determine what led him to his rampage. She discusses the signs that she overlooked in an effort to conceal her own dislike of Kevin. Further, Eva explores the possibility that her dislike of her son and motherhood led him down a nihilistic path.

This book is very dark, and at times it can get very intense. However, it is well written and incredibly moving. This novel will honestly take you on an emotional journey and make you ponder some serious topics. This is one of those topics that makes us so uncomfortable that we often don’t discuss it. That is precisely what makes this novel so enthralling.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons)

Despite the fact that this novel is nearly 300 years old it is still easy to love. This novel is rife with scandal and seduction and it’s almost difficult to imagine it being written in the 18th century. I’m sure most of you are more familiar with the film adaptions of this novel, which include Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Cruel Intentions (1999). However, as good as those movies are, the book is better. Cliche, I know. The epistolary format can often be translated to film but will always be lacking that endearing intimacy we obtain through reading.

The perverse and scandalous actions of high society sociopaths is a topic that fascinates us all. It’s the reason that The Real Housewives and other similar shows are so popular. Clearly, this is a topic that has always fascinated us mere mortals since this book has been popular for hundreds of years.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I first read this book during my angsty teen years and I felt like it had been written just for me. That is part of what makes this novel so great. I reread it again recently and it transported me right back into that state of mind, which is something not all authors can do.

We never know who Charlie is writing too, although the movie delves into it being his friend Michael. This is one of those novels that really only works because of its epistolary nature. The scenes and emotions he discusses, while normal for all teens, are not something teenagers normally divulge. While this can be chalked up to a classic coming of age tale, it is honestly so much more than that. It deals with themes of mental health, death, and sexual abuse in a very honest way. Further, it examines these things from the confusing perspective of a teenager trying to understand them and their place in the world.

84 Charing Cross Road

This book is a collection of actual letters between the author and a London bookseller working at the address used in the title. In many ways, it has a somewhat lighter theme than the other books I’ve listed. Somehow, though, the realistic nature of it makes it the most poignant.

Helene Hanff begins her correspondence in the late 1940’s after WWII while London is in a state of reconstruction. A time when serious rations were placed on food and supplies. As a friendship develops between the two you get an amazing glimpse into daily post-war life. Their friendship is heartwarming, intimate, and even a touch romantic.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

This is another postwar novel because I am a sucker for historical fiction. A young author, Juliet, corresponds with a book club on the island of Guernsey after the end of the war. Guernsey, which is part of the Channel Islands, was the only part of Britain under German occupation during the war. The citizens of the islands, therefore, had a very different reality than those in London during this time.

The inhabitants of the island created their book club as a ruse under the nose of German leadership and formed unbreakable bonds with each other. Shortly after the end of the war, Juliet begins her correspondance with the members of the society almost on accident. She is drawn to them and their remarkable stories and is pulled to tell their story. There is a heavy note of mystery surrounding the group and the members who did not make it through the war. The story is both heartwarming and poignant.

Recently, Netflix made this novel into a movie. While I found the movie to be wonderful and mostly true to the novel, I still recommend reading. Again, there is something lost in translation when an epistolary novel becomes a film.

Dear Boy,

Dear Boy, is a gut-wrenching memoir by Heather Weber. This book is a cascade of emotions that will definitely move you to tears. I wish someone had warned me about all of the ugly crying I would be doing while reading it.

She writes letters to her older brother, who died at a young age after some family chaos caused a separation between the two. She also writes to her other family members and speaks openly about their broken home and the effect it had on her and her siblings. It digs deep into the effect that unchecked mental illness can have on children. What I most took from this book was the manifestation of hope, love, and redemption. I think she conveys so many things without becoming too sentimental that she loses the reader. I recommend this book to everyone, but especially those who are struggling to deal with grief or make sense of a difficult past.

Nick & Jake

Imagine all of your favorite classic literary characters are intermingling with real-life big whigs and commentating on life at the start of the Cold War. That is the most concise way I can describe this book. Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby and Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises begin a unique friendship through correspondence. From there the story unfurls and you meet many other familiar faces. The discuss the overreaching CIA and life with McCarthyism and wonder if they can save their country from itself.

This is honestly one of the most creative historical fiction pieces I have ever read. It ties literary and historical characters together so seamlessly and works in a way I would not have thought possible. The epistolary format works so well here as each character has unique letterheads & fonts which adds to its uniqueness. If you love books, history, and espionage this novel marries them in a wonderful and lively way that you won’t want to miss.


This book will grab you by the feels and hold on tight. Set in the 90’s in New York we meet teenagers, Antonio & Natasha, hopelessly in love. Their entire world is turned upside down when Antonio is accused of an appalling crime and taken away to a prison in Upstate New York.

The entire story of their lives is presented through the letters they write to each other through the years. We watch them come of age and somehow manage to stay connected through their lives are on opposite trajectories. This novel is packed with the kind of raw emotion that will strip you down and leave you aching for more.

What are your thoughts on the epistolary novel? Do you have a favorite one?

If you liked this post then head over to my new blog for more over-caffeinated adventures in parenting, marriage, and life.


epistolary novels

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s