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7 Daring Epistolary Novels That Push Literary Boundaries

December 15 2021
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Reading someone else’s correspondence is both a little scandalous and a direct violation of federal law—but good epistolary literature makes us forget all about that. For Write-a-Friend month this December, I’ve compiled a list of innovative works that test the boundaries of the epistolary genre and expound on the various ways in which we can derive truth, vindication, and a sense of belonging from literature, specifically tailored to entice the shameless gossips among us. Take a look—I won’t tell!

The Appeal
by Janice Hallett

A subversive murder mystery fit for only the nosiest of scandalmongers, THE APPEAL follows two law students as they sift through a town-wide pile of correspondence in hopes of identifying a killer and setting free their wrongfully convicted client. Told through evidence such as text messages, emails, notices, and legal transcripts, Janice Hallett’s debut novel offers a thrilling look into the hierarchical and secretive structure of small-town life. Full of intrigue and deceit, THE APPEAL is as close as regular folks can get to investigating and solving a twisty, nefarious crime.

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The Appeal
Janice Hallett

INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER

Perfect for fans of Ruth Ware and Lisa Jewell, this “dazzlingly clever” (The Sunday Times) murder mystery follows a community rallying around a sick child—but when escalating lies lead to a dead body, everyone is a suspect.

The Fairway Players, a local theatre group, is in the midst of rehearsals when tragedy strikes the family of director Martin Hayward and his wife Helen, the play’s star. Their young granddaughter has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and with an experimental treatment costing a tremendous sum, their fellow castmates rally to raise the money to give her a chance at survival.

But not everybody is convinced of the experimental treatment’s efficacy—nor of the good intentions of those involved. As tension grows within the community, things come to a shocking head at the explosive dress rehearsal. The next day, a dead body is found, and soon, an arrest is made. In the run-up to the trial, two young lawyers sift through the material—emails, messages, letters—with a growing suspicion that a killer may be hiding in plain sight. The evidence is all there, between the lines, waiting to be uncovered.

A wholly modern take on the epistolary novel, The Appeal is a “daring…clever, and funny” (The Times) debut for fans of Richard Osman and Lucy Foley.

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The Roxy Letters
by Mary Pauline Lowry

In which messy, twenty-something, perpetually broke Roxy tackles the evils of corporatization and the perils of sharing space with a rent-avoiding ex—one strongly worded letter at a time. THE ROXY LETTERS is a study in nonlinear growth reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s Diary: Written in misguided and mostly unsent letters, this slightly delayed coming-of-age story details the many cringe-worthy and absurd predicaments faced by a woman just trying to figure her life out. Equal parts endearing and brutally honest, Roxy’s tumultuous journey toward self-discovery is one you will not want to put down.

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The Roxy Letters
Mary Pauline Lowry

Meet Roxy. For fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Bridget Jones’s Diary comes “just the kind of comic novel we need right now” (The Washington Post) about an Austin artist trying to figure out her life one letter to her ex-boyfriend at a time.

Bridget Jones penned a diary; Roxy writes letters. Specifically: she writes letters to her hapless, rent-avoidant ex-boyfriend—and current roommate—Everett. This charming and funny twenty-something is under-employed (and under-romanced), and she’s decidedly fed up with the indignities she endures as a deli maid at Whole Foods (the original), and the dismaying speed at which her beloved Austin is becoming corporatized. When a new Lululemon pops up at the intersection of Sixth and Lamar where the old Waterloo Video used to be, Roxy can stay silent no longer.

As her letters to Everett become less about overdue rent and more about the state of her life, Roxy realizes she’s ready to be the heroine of her own story. She decides to team up with her two best friends to save Austin—and rescue Roxy’s love life—in whatever way they can. But can this spunky, unforgettable millennial keep Austin weird, avoid arrest, and find romance—and even creative inspiration—in the process?

With timely themes and hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments, Roxy Letters is a smart and clever story that is “bursting with originality, quirky wit, and delightful charm” (Hannah Orenstein, author of Playing with Matches).

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This Is How You Lose the Time War
by Amal El-Mohtar

Sapphic pen pals? Check. Spies on either side of a never-ending war? Also, check. When Red finds a mocking note from Blue among the ashes of a war zone, she is overwhelmed by fear and eagerness. She does not expect to fall in love. THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR is an unforgettable mixture of science fiction and poetic literary fiction that follows two agents from rival factions with little in common except their jobs—and a penchant for writing letters. Throughout time, Red and Blue exchange secrets on paper, in flowers, by lava, and on trees; their unlikely connection transcends battle lines and the cosmos. And it may very well bring upon their demise.

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This Is How You Lose the Time War
Amal El-Mohtar

“[An] exquisitely crafted tale...Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay...This short novel warrants multiple readings to fully unlock its complexities.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review).

From award-winning authors Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone comes an enthralling, romantic novel spanning time and space about two time-traveling rivals who fall in love and must change the past to ensure their future.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandment finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, becomes something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean the death of each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win. That’s how war works, right?

Cowritten by two beloved and award-winning sci-fi writers, This Is How You Lose the Time War is an epic love story spanning time and space.

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The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga

THE WHITE TIGER, written in the form of a letter addressed to the Chinese Premier shortly before his trip to India, details the unapologetic entrepreneurial ascent of Balram Halwai, a poor village boy born in the Indian Darkness. Balram is smart, introspective, and a self-proclaimed murderer—his writing paints a clear vision of the wealth disparity and corruption rampant in his country, and his relentless ambition, painted against the institutional restraints of his caste, leaves you wondering just how far you’d go to seek a better life. Adiga’s debut novel is an irreverent, darkly humorous, and provocative look into Indian society. A must-read!

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The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga

SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

The stunning Booker Prize–winning novel from the author of Amnesty and Selection Day that critics have likened to Richard Wright’s Native Son, The White Tiger follows a darkly comic Bangalore driver through the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. “This is the authentic voice of the Third World, like you've never heard it before” (John Burdett, Bangkok 8).

The white tiger of this novel is Balram Halwai, a poor Indian villager whose great ambition leads him to the zenith of Indian business culture, the world of the Bangalore entrepreneur. On the occasion of the president of China’s impending trip to Bangalore, Balram writes a letter to him describing his transformation and his experience as driver and servant to a wealthy Indian family, which he thinks exemplifies the contradictions and complications of Indian society.

Recalling The Death of Vishnu and Bangkok 8 in ambition, scope, The White Tiger is narrative genius with a mischief and personality all its own. Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international publishing sensation—and a startling, provocative debut.

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A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided to end her life. A decade later, along the shores of a beach in Canada’s Desolation Sound, failed novelist Ruth comes across her well-preserved diary detailing the reasons why. A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is an inventive mystery that dabbles in magical realism and is deeply concerned with human connection, the complexities of assimilation, and the passage of time. Told through alternating chapters between Nao’s impassioned writing and Ruth’s voyaging point of view, this indelible story sees Ruth on a mission to uncover—and perhaps upend—Nao’s tragic fate.

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A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki

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The Incarnations
by Susan Barker

What if your emotional baggage spanned more than a thousand years? What if the world suddenly forced you to deal with it? Wang Jun is happy enough in his marriage, his job as a taxi driver, his role as a father; but when mysterious letters penned by someone who claims to be his soulmate keep showing up for him to read, he has to face the unlikely possibility that each letter details one of his past lives. THE INCARNATIONS is in equal parts a twisted and refreshing take on the epistolary genre—a brilliant exploration of the inescapable, infrangible bond between two souls entwined by a dark history.

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The Incarnations
Susan Barker

Read a Book Wherein All Point-of-View Characters Are People of Color

Taxi driver Wang begins to receive unusual letters from a mysterious “soul mate” that are filled with the stories of his previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars. With each letter, Wang becomes more convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for more than 1,000 years.

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Vanessa and Her Sister
by Priya Parmar

Everyone loves an origin story, and this one, champagne-heady and gloriously rooted in reality, does not disappoint. VANESSA AND HER SISTER is an intimate glimpse into the early lives of Virginia Woolf and the very talented members of the Bloomsbury Group. Told through the journal entries of her sister, Vanessa Bell, as well as through the postcards, letters, and telegrams exchanged between them, Parmar’s second novel explores the volatility of sisterhood against a larger, mutual desire for success. In other words: a reality-style inside scoop on the stormy lives of these famous Victorians. Because we deserve it.

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Vanessa and Her Sister
Priya Parmar

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