Frances and Bernard
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Carlene Bauer’s debut novel, Frances and Bernard, reminded me why I enjoy reading letters so much, either in collections of correspondence or as epistolary fiction. Letters are a step up from journal writing in their self-conscious display of innermost philosophical workings, and when done right they’re nothing but fun. This novel in letters ostensibly explores the could-haves and might-haves of the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, transmogrified into Bauer’s titular characters. The two real-life writers did meet at Yaddo in the ’50s and struck up a mutual admiration society, and there are aspects of Frances and Bernard that are faithful to their models—shared Catholicism, a certain literary high-mindedness, and Lowell’s drinking, womanizing, and mania. But I don’t think it needs to be read with these equivalences in mind, and in fact I found it freeing to allow Bauer her inspiration and let it go at that. Frances and Bernard are fine characters on their own, and the unspooling of their mutual discovery would be wonderful no matter whom the author had in mind.
This was definitely one of my favorite books of the past 365 days—as it’s only January, I can’t cite the calendar year without some serious faint-praise damnation. Bauer is a lovely writer, controlled and careful, and she has a great understanding of how to make the genre work to tell her story. She gets the tone of her two characters—their respective sensibilities and social positions, the era, the place—just right. Surprisingly, at least for this infidel, their exchanges on Catholicism were a huge draw. Religious banter in a novel can be deadly when written with a tin ear, but theirs was enchanting, the sort of cerebral foreplay that leads a girl to read Thomas Merton in bed.
It’s been a while since I expected—or even asked for—the books I read to lift me up beyond the usual pleasure of craft and intellectual travel. But Frances and Bernard did, in all sorts of small ways. It made me want to be a better writer, and a better person, especially where the two intersect: to write more actual letters, answer my email more thoughtfully, write in longhand more often, and debate important things with people I love without ever edging over into annoyance. Even better, it made me feel as though I could, which is no small feat. Go read Frances and Bernard, and make sure, when you’re done, you have a few stamps and envelopes and someone you care for to write.