Best Epistolary Novels: The January 2021 Brilliant Book List

It’s a new year, and a new series of recommended book lists for 2021!

This year, instead of rinsing and repeating the old “recommend five random books” idea, I’ve decided to create book recommendations by theme.

Starting with January’s theme: Epistolary novels! Also known as, novels that are written as letters from one character to another.

Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

“How dreadful…to be caught up in a game and have no idea of the rules.” — Sorcery and Cecilia

Sorcery and Cecilia was the first epistolary novel I ever read. Well, the first epistolary novel I ever read that I enjoyed. (Frankenstein doesn’t count. Did not like that book at all).

Set in Regency England, in an alternate universe where magic is possible, two adventurous letter-writers (the eponymous Cecilia and her best friend and cousin Kate) write letters to each other as they attempt to solve a mystery from both ends: Why did a witch try to poison Kate? Who is the man spying on Cecilia? How come all the young men are falling in love with the newcomer, Dorothea?

I’d read Patricia Wrede’s comedic, fantasy-trope-busting Dealing With Dragons series before, so I knew this would be good. And it was. Friends and fellow writers Wrede and Stevermer came up with Sorcery and Cecilia as the result of a Letter Game, a kind of role-playing game where the authors wrote letters to each other from the personas of their characters. Obviously, the authors’ real-life chemistry was reflected in their characters — Pretty soon, the game took on a life of its own, and ta-da! This novel is the result 🙂

The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” — The Screwtape Letters

After being introduced to CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity by a friend in college (what is it with myfriends and epistolary novels? And also, why didn’t I know before sophomore year that CS Lewis didn’t just write The Chronicles of Narnia? Tsk, tsk. Shocking lack of research, younger me), I started looking up other Lewis works, and eventually stumbled on The Screwtape Letters.

The Screwtape Letters is a fictional philosophy/theology book, of sorts, in which an experienced demon coaches a younger demon on how to tempt, badger, and ultimately destroy his subject, a young man living during WWII.

CS Lewis, who spent much of his life as an atheist, displays powerful insight into human nature, and the many ways we deceive ourselves and are deceived by others. From false humility to true judgmentalism, from courage to cowardice, Lewis covers it all…and also shows how a man (or woman) might become aware of these weaknesses intrinsic to all human beings, so that they can be on guard against them and their devastating consequences.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.” — The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Like Screwtape, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is another WWII-era epistolary novel (well, it takes place a little after WWII, but what’s a few years between friends?). And, like Sorcery and Cecilia, it features a spunky heroine and witty good humor in her correspondence with her friends.

The Guernsey book (I’ve shortened the title because having to type out the entire thing every time I mention it is about as pleasant as eating a potato peel pie) is about a spunky writer named Juliet who starts corresponding with a man named Dawsey who lives on the Island of Guernsey. As Juliet deals with love and career issues, she decides to give Dawsey and his friends on the island a visit, and of course there is also a mild mystery in the form of a missing woman named Kit (who had been taken by the Nazis) for Juliet and her new friends to solve.

Although I didn’t love everything about this novel, I enjoyed the trading of wits in the many letters between main character and the other characters, from her friend and publisher, to the man pursuing her, to the Guernsey residents — each characters’ writing style is so distinctive, and the chemistry between the characters is delightful to witness.

Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

“Dear Daddy-Long-Legs,
You never answered my question and it was very important.
— Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs is another older epistolary novel, about an orphaned girl named Jerusha who writes letters to her benefactor, a nameless man who has chosen to give her a scholarship to go to college and fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. Only problem is, this mysterious man refuses to meet Jerusha or tell her who he is, and so Jerusha calls him “Daddy Long Legs” when she writes to update him on her academic progress.

At school, Jerusha (also known as Judy) makes friends with two other girls of very different temperaments, learns to become an independent adult, and also learns what it means to fall in love. And if I say any more about the plot, it will spoil the lovely little twist at the end. So I will leave it at that.

Daddy Long Legs was so popular, it was made into multiple films, a Japanese anime AND two musicals (the most recent musical is not bad — music could be better, but the script worked quite well). Not to mention, it inspired a Hindi and Korean film. And as they say: you know a story is good when it goes international.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

“Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Do you believe in love before that?”

Although Attachments is not, strictly speaking, a true epistolary novel in every sense of the word, I include it here because of its clever conceit: the author tells much of the story via emails between a main character and a secondary character, which are secretly read by the other main character.

Sound a bit confusing? Okay, here’s the plot in plain English: A cyber-security worker named Lincoln is assigned to read company emails sent among employees, to make sure they are complying with company policy. As Lincoln scans emails, he stumbles across a conversation between two women that piques his interest. Slowly, Lincoln develops feelings for one of the women without her being aware of his existence. Now, he has to figure out how to make himself known to her (hopefully in a non-creepy way) if he is to have a chance to win her.

Yes, the premise is a bit creepy, but if nothing else, clearly demonstrates the power of a skillful storyteller, in making — erm — unusual situations entertaining. It’s a great talent if you have it, and if so, use it wisely 😉

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