Frances and Bernard
I didn’t know until after I finished reading Frances and Bernard, the epistolary novel by Carlene Bauer, that it was based on the letters between the writers Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, and then I wanted to go back and read it again. With characters inspired by the feisty, Catholic Southern short story writer and the more-than-slightly-mad poet, the book sizzles with scintillating observations and opinions, and with passions of the mind and body as the two young writers fall in love through their letters over the span of ten years.
After meeting at a writer’s colony in 1958, Frances and Bernard begin a friendship through correspondence, finally meeting in New York city in the turbulent, gender-role-rearranging sixties, chronicling through letters their coming to terms with what their relationship can and can’t become, with all its fervour and all the demands each of them is dealing with.
As the friend who recommended the book to me said, “I never would have thought I would enjoy a novel written entirely in letters, but I couldn’t put it down.” Having only letters to go by can seem limiting because of restrictions in depicting place and action, but, maybe because the two characters live so passionately in words, the book never lags. Additional letters from each character’s closest friend fill out the story line, but it is Frances and Bernard who hold the reader’s attention with their talk of love and God, mothers and families, and, of course, writing.
A thoroughly satisfying read.
- Melinda Burns