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Epistolary Novels

This week the FPL Book Club discussed We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This is one of our series of epistolary novels. What’s an epistolary novel? It is described in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia as “A novel presented in the form of letters written by one or more characters. The form was made popular in the 18th century with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe. Although letters are commonly included in novels, the epistolary form was used infrequently after the 18th century, though there have been modern revivals, as in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1941) and John Barth’s Letters (1979).

So in the case of We Need to Talk about Kevin a woman named Eva is writing letters to her estranged husband Franklin. The topic of the letters is their son Kevin, who has murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher. It is dark story to say the least, and yet so well crafted that you can’t stop reading. (Wait, yes one person thought it was too dark to keep reading.) By the end of the book I felt out of breath, as there is quite a big surprise at the end of the novel. I was really glad to have a group of fellow readers to discuss this title as we tried to decide how reliable our narrator really was. The novel is a meditation on motherhood and nature vs. nurture. Was our narrator simply a bad mother or did she give birth to a bad seed?

This was definitely one of the scariest books I’ve read, and I imagine I will mention it on Monday when Melanie, Mindy, & I are on WCAI talking about scary reads for Halloween. Our next epistolary novel will be The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg. We’ve got lots of copies available at the Reference Desk if you’d like to join us for next month’s discussion.

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