Having just dumped a prize-winning literary novel I’d been meaning to read for years out of sheer boredom (no, I’m not going to tell you which one it was), I downloaded Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday from Audible. I was immediately caught up in the flow of communications – emails, notes and diary entries – that sculpt this touching story. Despite its lukewarm reviews, I’d enjoyed the film of the book, which starred Euan McGregor and Emily Blunt. The audiobook, with a different narrator for each character, put a smile on my face within the first couple of minutes. I can’t tell you more, I’m afraid, as it’s only had 20 minutes of my time so far.
But it made me think of the other epistolary novels I’ve enjoyed over the years.
I can’t speak for them all but the ones I’ve read are not, by and large, towering literary achievements. Mostly they’re played for humour or gentle sentimentality. But reading isn’t just about literary or intellectual genius, is it? It’s about entertainment and feel-good. It’s about curling up on the sofa or spreading out on a beach towel, and being lifted out of your life and deposited somewhere else for a few hours. Everyone loves to receive a letter; we all jump to the ‘ping’ of a newly arrived email; and as for encountering someone’s secret diary – well, it would be irresistible, wouldn’t it? I think that’s partly why epistolary novels are such fun.
Strictly speaking – and the clue is in the word – epistolary novels tell their story through written communications, letters, notes and more recently, emails. But many lists also include books based around diary entries. So here, I offer you a glimpse of five of my favourites across both categories, in case you feel like packing them in your holiday suitcases.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Strictly speaking, not a novel, but a memoir, as the story is true and the characters are real. In 1949 in search of obscure classics and other books she has been unable to find in New York, the author contacts a second-hand bookshop in London. The book chronicles the correspondence between the author and the bookshop’s manager over decades as their friendship blossoms. You probably know that already, but if haven’t come across 84 Charing Cross Road in either its literary, film, or stage play version before, you’re missing a gem.
Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster
I first read Daddy Long Legs as a child and re-read it last year in just a couple of hours. Brought up in an orphanage, Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbot is fortunate to gain an anonymous benefactor who pays for her education. The condition attached is that she write regularly to the benefactor, whose identity she does not know, and whom she has seen only through his distorted shadow – hence the nickname she gives him. The letters unfold into the story of how an independent girl begins to question what she has previously accepted and challenge the status quo, as she blossoms into a young woman. It’s a one-sitting book for an adult, but a gentle and touching read nonetheless.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A heart-warming story, dark in places, telling of the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation. The letters to and from the various members of the eponymous society tell of quirky characters, friendship, resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Whimsical, but never trite; pretty much perfect, this one.
e: A Novel by Matt Beaumont
The strapline brands it ‘the novel of liars, lunch and lost knickers’ and that about sums it up. Not letters this time, but emails, and definitely told for laughs. This is a wickedly funny book, awash with backstabbing and bitchiness but above all, wit. Expertly plotted, it’s set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. You’ll probably devour it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face – especially if you work in marketing.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend
Yes, and all the Adrian Mole adventures that followed too. Adrian Mole, stuffier and more pretentious than the average child, diligently records his thoughts and experiences as he progresses through self-conscious adolescence. The seven books which follow chart Adrian’s progress through life. They’ve been around for a while, but are pure gold nonetheless. Every Brit will know of these, but if you’re reading this elsewhere, I urge you to make the acquaintance of Adrian Mole.
There are others… Bridget Jones’ Diary of course; perhaps also We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Screwtape Letters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – all gems in their genres. The Martian is a newer one which has made its way on to my ‘to read’ list. Goodreads provides an excellent list of epistolary novels too. But if you have a particular favourite, will you share it with us?