Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

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Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A sophisticated epistolary exchange between two fictional authors, based on the not-quite-love affair between Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell. Sparkling with wit but also richly philosophical, this debut novel is not to be missed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099578604

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There's something very special about an epistolary novel. The format might seem unnatural to readers in this day of abbreviated text messages and e-mails, but the conceit of a written exchange allows for fully developed first-person voices and a confessional tone. Provided the author can bypass the subtle difficulties of plot-building, letters are also a handy indicator of the passage of time and ably convey period vocabulary.

In Carlene Bauer's debut work of fiction, novelist Frances Reardon and poet Bernard Eliot meet at a writers' colony in the summer of 1957. Frances senses traces of John Donne in Bernard's spiritual poetry and Bernard loves Frances's biting satire about a group of nuns. They begin a correspondence, discussing their writing but also, increasingly, their personal lives. It is evident from the start that Bernard adores Frances, but Frances is slower to succumb to romantic feelings. ('Whirlwinds can't love slugs' is how she self-deprecatingly phrases her dilemma.) Over the course of a decade and more, they suffer myriad betrayals and eventually marry other people, but theirs remains the one great love affair of their lives. 'Frances, you…are fixed for me, you do not spin,' Bernard writes. To a friend he avows, 'she was sent by God to show me myself…I [have] been both her lover and her brother.'

It is apt that I used the word 'confessional' above, in fact, because religion is one of the major subjects of the characters' letters. When the book begins they are both staunch Catholics, but crises of faith will leave them shaken – and make Bernard an outright atheist. To begin with, though, Bernard wants to discuss the role of the Holy Spirit and how one senses direction and vocation; 'I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue.' He later admits, sheepishly, that he meant to trick Frances into thinking theirs a holy, platonic friendship, like that between St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross.

It is unusual to see religion being taken seriously in mainstream fiction. Bauer writes sensitively about faith, never belittling or satirizing it. (Indeed, her first book, Not That Kind of Girl, was a memoir about grappling with her Evangelical faith.) She never mocks her characters' earnestness, and tenderly explores how Bernard's loss of faith drives a wedge between them. As Bernard falls prey to mental illness, with manic episodes exacerbated by heavy drinking, he begins to feel that his spiritual life has been nothing but a hallucination: 'When I think about all my fervour, and realize that God is an image thrown up by my illness, it's very hard for me to understand my faith as anything other than a fever dream.'

This might all sound very sombre, but Frances and Bernard sparkles with wit, too. Both main characters have an incisive sense of humour that they often turn on other writers, or on themselves. 'I have been known to subsist for days on nothing but peanuts and beer, like an alcoholic circus elephant,' Bernard jests. Meanwhile, Frances pronounces her typically imperious opinions on modern literature: 'Regarding Kerouac, I'm allergic too. The Beats are really nothing more than a troop of malevolent Boy Scouts trying to earn badges for cultural arson.' The letters start off as lightweight missives passing between Frances's Philadelphia and Bernard's Boston, but gradually become more intimate; they then nearly drop off altogether when both characters find work in New York City and meet in person instead.

To plug the gaps in the plot, Bauer relies on letters from Frances to her best friend, Claire, and from Bernard to his best friend, Ted. Other recipients include their mutual editor, John, and – on one notable occasion – a nun of Frances's acquaintance (this letter being the most poignant of the entire book). In the letters to others, we get a clearer picture of how each sees the other, and of what goes wrong between them. I was disappointed, however, to see Bauer break the mould to include letters from other writers on four occasions: two from Claire and two from Ted. The ostensible purpose of these letters is to provide detached perspective on the relationship (like schoolyard 'he really does like you!' notes), but I thought Bauer could have achieved this without watering down the mixture with other voices.

The novel is consciously patterned on the relationship between American writers Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell. I don't know enough about either author to notice where Bauer's plot chimes with or diverges from their story, but from what I can tell she seems to have reversed the balance of affection – O'Connor's was the unrequited passion and Lowell's the reluctance. With or without knowledge of its historical inspiration, though, this is an erudite and affecting novel. Intelligent and classy, but also a good old-fashioned love story.

Further reading suggestion: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is a much-loved modern epistolary; for a more recent example, try The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern. Real-life writers exchange ideas in Here and Now: Letters by J M Coetzee and Paul Auster. You might also appreciate Four New Words for Love by Michael Cannon.

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