The epistolary novel has been dead on arrival for a long time, maybe since even back in the day, but then my memory of anything by Samuel Richardson, force-read in intro classes in college, is hazy as hell. Even Austen, 200 years ago, rewrote “First Impressions”, an epistolary novel, into what would become Pride and Prejudice, and bless her heart for that. (Especially because I just recently read Austen’s Lady Susan, which was never re-written, and I could feel how the novel suffered from its epistolary format.) As a novel style, letter-writing hung on in Gothic longer, though I couldn’t exactly say why. Frankenstein, Dracula, and if my Internet search is to be believed, House of Leavesand The Historian are all epistolary, and slightly cheesy for it. It’s a weird way to have characters interact, maybe not a hundred years ago, but certainly now, and even a hundred years ago, letter-writing stories stripped out the narrator, who is the ace up the sleeve of any writer. Maybe. Don’t hold me to that statement.
Which is why it is fairly astonishing to find an epistolary novel written in this century (hell, even the last century) which works. Beth and Jennifer are both employees at a Midwestern newspaper, and friends; Lincoln is the man tasked with reading the emails flagged by whatever metric flags inter-office correspondence. In rom-com style, Lincoln reads the emails between these women, and becomes more and more smitten with the unmarried-but-attached Beth, while trying to cope with his life as it is: living with mom, hanging with his D&D crowd, being paid to be a voyeur. This is set right at the millennium shift, because even a decade later (now), such a scenario is unlikely. We all know what exact crap the work overlords are flagging or blocking, and get around such things using smartphones or off-work email. But I knew a sys-admin back in the day who had to read through a whole horrible romance with one of the company employees and a – for lack of a better phrase here – corporate spy from another company who was obviously using her for her corporate knowledge. My friend was so horrified and grossed out by reading this correspondence, which was both intimate and, knowing what he did about the other dude, totally Browning-esque in its damaged narrators. Which is a weird thing to say about real life, but art and life, etc.
Anyway, point being, I pretty much loved the ways Beth and Jennifer interacted in their little illicit emails. They are snappy are funny, maybe even snappier and funnier than is likely, but then I know and correspond with a lot of funny folk, so it really isn’t a stretch except for in narrative unity stylins, which is more than ok for me in a novel. Lincoln’s sections are not in epistolary form, which is good, and I generally appreciated the ways the other characters were, um, characterized. Like you do. He’s got this absolutely foul-mouthed friend who ends up being a rigid traditionalist in some ways, and I totally know that guy. I know the attachment parenting friend who plays D&D with the guys. I know a lot of these people. It’s possible I even am some of these people, but, like, less quick to the quip. That I feel that way at all is fantastic, given that I usually want to strangle rom-com people until their tongues loll out.
Which is probably the thing: this sort of careful, almost deliberately casual, snappy Gen-X rom-com is only going to work for certain types of folk. I mean, duh, any book at all out there is going to have its readership and not another – that’s presumably why we’re out here at all chattering about the books we read, trying to marry a book with its best audience – but I felt that decidedly here. While I know that this term is trouble, and I don’t want to get into a big fight about it, I feel like this is chick-lit for nerds, and as a nerd who has read the occasional chick-lit, hoorah. I’m too lazy to check if Bridget Jones’s Diarycounts as a epistolary novel – diary-form being somewhat more solipsistic, blahity blah – but Attachmentshit the same part of my brain that enjoyed that, in that it’s girly and fluffy while being smart and lightly allusive, and I appreciate the heck out of that.
I’m not going to say it’s perfect – the crisis and denouement are rushed and somewhat unbelievable, not crediting the real ethical problems of voyeuristic email-reading like maybe you should – but whatever. I’m still back on jazzed as hell that a novel that falls into the dreaded category of women’s fiction doesn’t fail the Bechdel test, and doesn’t fail it hard. Love is great and all, but I’m so happy to find female friends who talk in the way female friends do about all everything and whatever. If you’re in the likely readership for this book, you know what I mean.