The buzz surrounding Frances and Bernard, the debut novel by Carlene Bauer, since its recent release (January 23, 2013 in Canada and February 5, 2013 in UK) has been immense. By the time I picked it last week I was filled with anticipation and excitement. Certainly, the characters of the story interested me – two writers, a novelist and a poet, who meet at a writers retreat and establish a long letter-writing relationship. These characters are based to a large extent on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell and their long relationship.
For the most part the novel is comprised of letters going back and forth between the title characters. The most revealing and interesting letters, however, were often those written to others outside of this relationship – Frances’ best friend, an agent, an aging nun and Bernard’s closest friend.
I must admit that as excited as I was about Frances and Bernard, I initially found it to be a bit of a struggle. In fact, those first sixty pages were some of the longest sixty pages I’ve read in a long time. They were dominated by discussions of faith: Bernard’s recent conversion to Catholicism and Frances’ life long commitment to it. And as fitting two writers who read a lot, they batted back and forth names and ideas belonging to those such as St. Augustine and Simone Weil. I’ve got to be honest with you here, I have a degree in Religious Studies and these discussions to me back to some of my most boring and loathed classes.
After that initial hump, the book really picks up. I don’t want to tell you how or why the book picks up, but let’s just say it becomes a little more plot driven and a little less philosophical. In fact, Frances and Bernard becomes a rather poignant love story.
Who would like this book? Fans of letter writing and the epistolary novel rejoice! Letter writing is an art that is deftly mastered in Frances and Bernard. That each character’s writing voice is so strong and distinct really showcases Bauer’s talent. Due to the religious angst that Bernard experiences Francis and Bernard reminded me of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which was a novel I adored in high school, so I might recommend it as a companion piece. Personally, I plan to follow up Frances and Bernard with Bauer’s own memoir Not That Kind of Girl, which recounts her own struggles with her Evangelical upbringing.