For longer than I care to admit, I nodded along blankly whenever someone talked about “epistolary novels”, because I had no clue what that meant. Turns out, it’s just a fancy word for novels written as letters, journals, or other documents. You’ve probably been reading epistolary novels all this time, and not even known it! I think the best ones draw from real life documents, or use the form in a new and interesting way. Here are 17 of the best epistolary novels…
A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville
A Room Made Of Leaves is an epistolary novel in the form of a memoir, imagined by Kate Grenville as that which might have been written by Elizabeth Macarthur. Her husband, John Macarthur, was a notorious Australian wool baron early in our colonial history, and his is the story most often retold in history books. But what of his silenced wife? She left behind a small collection of letters, and in those Grenville sensed another story, perhaps a truer story, that could be read between the lines.
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale For The Time Being is an epistolary novel told largely through the diary entries of one of its protagonists. Nao is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl, dismayed and disgruntled by her parents’ choice to return to Tokyo and drag her along with them. She feels displaced, but finds comfort in her diary… which the story’s other protagonist, Ruth, finds washed up on the shore of British Colombia, inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. She begins a desperate search to find out what became of Nao, a presumed victim of the 2011 tsunami.
The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
As the title suggests, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is written as the (alright, more semi-autobiographical than absolutely true) diary of a Native American boy who attends an all-white school off the reservation on which he lives. It tracks Junior’s school year, and includes many funny and insightful drawings from the pen of the budding cartoonist. The book has been subject to countless challenges and bans because of its unflinching insider’s take on the real-life struggles facing teenagers, especially teenagers of colour and those who live with disabilities.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage is an epistolary novel written in the most heart-wrenching style of letters you can imagine: those to and from a wrongfully imprisoned man’s wife. Tayari Jones’s novel takes us beyond the cliches of black men behind bars, and pulls us in for a closer look. How much do we owe, to each other and to ourselves? How much is too much to give? There are no good guys or bad guys in this novel, only human hearts with human stories to tell. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Bridget Jones’s Diary was probably the first epistolary novel I ever read (though I didn’t know it at the time). It started as a newspaper column, styled as diary entries from a thirty-something self-proclaimed Singleton, living in ’90s London. It became such a sensation that the columns were compiled and conflated into a whole book: a diary of a year in the life of Bridget Jones, beloved but bumbling, humble and huggable, in search of a happily ever after to call her own.
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
One of the earliest examples of the epistolary novel can be found in Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1748, it is a cautionary tale hiding behind the thin veneer of a supposed romance. A young lady, Clarissa, seeks to live a quiet and virtuous life, only to be thwarted time and again by her family’s plans for her to marry and the unconscionable conduct of her would-be suitor. The sorry tale unfolds in letters to and from the lady in question, with a few asides here and there. Read my full review of Clarissa here.
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Epistolary novels aren’t all diaries and letters. Take Daisy Jones and The Six, for instance. This worldwide best-seller is written as a transcript from a Behind The Music-style documentary. In it, each member of the titular band tells their version of events, from their formation to their smash hit album to their abrupt disbandment. This fly-on-the-wall style, and the contradictory stories each contributor swears to be true, makes for compelling reading. Read my full review of Daisy Jones and The Six here.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Some epistolary novels mix it up, with a variety of stylised documents. Dracula is one such novel. Through a combination of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and other scribblings, Bram Stoker depicts the emergence, chase, and ultimate demise of one of the 19th century’s most terrifying villains, Dracula. Sure, you might find yourself wondering where Van Helsing and co. found the time to do all this letter writing, when they were chasing the vampire up and down the country… but asking too many questions ruins the fun. Read my full review of Dracula here.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
Almost all of the action in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is triggered by the writing or receipt of a letter (how they ever turned such a book into a film is beyond me, they’re a credit to themselves!). It kicks off with Juliet writing to her publishers to tell them she doesn’t wish to write a sequel to her best-selling novel. Then, she receives a letter from a stranger, who lives in the out-of-the-way spot we call Guernsey, and he’s a member of the most intriguing little club…
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
At first, you might not even realise The Handmaid’s Tale is an epistolary novel. You’d have to hold out to the end for the epilogue (and wait another minute or two before you start searching for the socks that Atwood blew off you). While it initially reads as a deeply introspective internal narrative, the epilogue reveals that The Handmaid’s Tale is just that: a handmaid’s tale, recorded onto cassette and buried in the junk drawer until long after the Gilead era has passed, carefully transcribed by the scholars who meet at a conference each year to try and work out what the heck went down back then. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.
I Love Dick by Chris Krauss
One of the odder types of epistolary novel, I Love Dick combines fiction, memoir, academic essays, heartfelt missives, and… a lot of other stuff. It deliberately pushes the boundaries, in more ways than one. Chris, who we are to understand is both the protagonist of the novel and the author herself, develops an obsession with a cultural critic named Dick. Her obsession grows, deepens, as she chases him across the country, and he grows ever more elusive. This is not a book for the faint of heart (if for no other reason than you might get a few funny looks reading it in public).
The Martian by Andy Weir
An epistolary novel from the future: The Martian is written as a series of logs by Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded alone on Mars. Accidentally left behind by his crew, he has to figure out how to make his meager rations last long enough for a rescue mission to find him. Written largely for his own eyes (seemingly forgetting that the documents might become part of a historical record), Watney’s log is hilarious, disarming, and full of character. Read my full review of The Martian here.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower straddles the fence of epistolary novels; while it’s written as letters from the main character, Charlie, he never receives a response, making them diaries in effect. Through these letters to no one, he reveals his innermost secrets and internalised trauma. In his own life, Charlie relishes the role of wallflower, standing on the sidelines of everything that happens. His anonymous friend, to whom he addresses the letters (and by extension the reader, you and I) fulfills that same role for Charlie, observing everything that happens to him and taking it all in without intervening.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
One of the few common threads through all epistolary novels is that the narrators are unreliable. When we’re writing our own version of events, we can’t help but be subjective, and communicate our own point of view as though it were irrefutable truth. While the diaries that make up Piranesi hold true to that tradition, there’s a key difference: Piranesi’s mistakes and oversights aren’t self-serving slips of the ego, they are a genuine product of his environment and his long-term isolation. I can’t say any more than that without spoiling it!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Until recently, Anne Brontë was kind of the forgotten Brontë sister – but not anymore. She’s having her moment in the spotlight, largely thanks to this transgressive and subversive epistolary novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. The story unfolds through a series of letters from one Gilbert Markham, describing how he came to meet a young widow named Helen Graham, now a tenant of (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall. It’s the most scandalous and debauched of all the Brontë novels, which surely in and of itself makes it worth a read. Read my full review of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall here.
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
It’s bold to call a fictitious memoir a “true history”, isn’t it? That’s what drew me to this epistolary novel, True History Of The Kelly Gang. Peter Carey imagines that Ned Kelly, inexplicably revered and infamous Australian bushranger, had a daughter, and what he might want to tell her about his life and crimes. It’s a conceit within a conceit, as each “volume” of Kelly’s “memoir” is preceded by a curator’s note about the state of the manuscript, and presumptions as to its origins. It’s also written in a delightfully unique and lyrical Irish-Australian dialect. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Sorry to end on a bum note, but we need to talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin. It is a truly heart-wrenching epistolary novel, told through a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her absentee husband, in which she endeavours to uncover where they went wrong with their son, and what they might have done to prevent his heinous crimes. Despite Kevin’s incarceration, and her own legal troubles, Eva up-ends her life to remain close to her son, and lays all of her shit bare to try and get to the bottom of it all.