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Best Contemporary Epistolary Novels

Updated on June 22, 2013
Epistolary novels are books written in the form of letters, diary entries, or articles.
Epistolary novels are books written in the form of letters, diary entries, or articles. | Source

What is an Epistolary Novel?

While it sounds highbrow, an "epistolary novel" is really just a novel written in the form of letters, though it can also be used to refer to a novel written in the form of a diary or articles. The first epistolary novel was written in the 17th century, and while it has fallen in and out of favor since then, modern novels still use the technique--some of them even using emails instead of a traditional narrative.

While the epistolary format of a novel can be frustrating--you're getting only one character's view and perspective on events at a time, and have to decide how reliable that narrator is--it can also be fun and uniquely effective.

Read on for some of the best contemporary epistolary novels.

More About the Book

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrow's "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" stands out as not only the best epistolary novel I've read, but also one of the best novels I've read period.

Sparkling, fun, with moments of tragedy and sorrow, it's an affecting read. In the novel, Juliet Ashton is a very popular novelist looking for inspiration following the end of World War II. She receives a letter from a man who lives on the island of Guernsey, and she begins to exchange letters with him, and eventually travels to Guernsey itself.

"The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society" has romance, plenty of gems for literature lovers, and a cast of eccentric, memorable characters. If you're looking for an introduction to the world of epistolary novels, this is a great one.


Ella Minnow Pea

"Ella Minnow Pea," by Mark Dunn, is another excellent modern epistolary novel. Ella Minnow Pea is a young woman living on the island of Nollop, named after the man who wrote the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" (which uses all of the letters of the alphabet). When the letters of that sentence begin to fall from his statue, the island's Council decides Neville Nollop is trying to send them a message--that he no longer wants the island's inhabitants to use those letters, making use of them a criminal offense.

As more and more letters fall to the ground, the characters find increasingly inventive ways to make their points and share information without using the forbidden symbols, which is immensely fun for the reader and also addresses issues of freedom of expression and oppressive, bumbling governments.

"Bridget Jones's Diary" Film Trailer

Bridget Jones's Diary

When you hear the words "Bridget Jones's Diary," you probably think of the Renee Zellweger movie in which she put on a convincing British accent and got "chubby" (read: normal sized). However, it's actually a novel by Helen Fielding, and is also considered the mother of all those fluffy, pastel-covered chick lit novels you see at the book store.

"Bridget Jones's Diary" is not at all like the empty stories its success spawned, though, other than the fact that it's about a modern-day woman struggling with weight, romance, and other everywoman issues.The novel, written in the form of diary entries, is sharp and funny, and Bridget is a likeable, realistically flawed character who seems like a best friend by the time you read the last page.

"The Color Purple" Film Trailer

The Color Purple

While the other entries in this list are lighter in tone, if you're looking for a more literary modern epistolary novel, try turning to "The Color Purple." Written by Alice Walker, it tells the story of Celie, a young black woman who is abused by her father and then by her husband. Her letters span twenty years, and through that time she grows into a strong and determined woman, learning about love, self-respect, and self-worth from her best friend Shug.

If you're offended by thematic material, including sometimes graphic depictions of sexuality and violence, this read might make you uncomfortable--but it nevertheless is a spellbinding, touching story that won't quickly leave your mind.

Other Epistolary Novels

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Dracula
  • Frankenstein
  • Daddy Long Legs
  • I Capture the Castle

Enjoying Epistolary Novels

Reading an epistolary novel can be an entirely different experience from those written in a more "traditional" format. While you generally only see one point of view, you get a deeper and often more fulfilling look into the character's emotional and mental state. If you love to read, then try one or two epistolary novels for a change of pace!


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