After meeting at a writers’ colony in 1957, Frances, a Catholic working-class Irish gal from Philadelphia, and Bernard, a Massachusetts Puritan blue blood who has converted to Catholicism, embark on a life-altering correspondence. Bauer’s use of the epistolary form is masterful as she forges a passionately spiritual, creative, and romantic dialogue between characters based on two literary giants famous for their brilliant letters, Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. Though she changes the particulars of O’Connor’s life, Bauer retains the great writer’s rigor, humor, faith, penetrating insights, and wisdom. In Bernard, she embraces Lowell’s protean powers, tempestuousness, and manic depression. They begin as friends sharing their thoughts and feelings about the church and writing and gradually, cautiously on Frances’ part, venture into love. Booklist Review
Delighted to have found this one on my own! BERNARD AND FRANCES reads less like the epistolary novel it is and more like intimate voice overs (Benedict Cumberbatch and Amy Acker) in a (black and white, of course) film artfully cutting looming shots of the heavy-jowled 1950s architecture of New York with intense close-ups of two luminously searching faces.
In a period of human evolution when Captain America; the Winter Soldier represents the apotheosis of our society’s hero myths, I find it hard to believe that there are readers who will sympathize with Bernard’s epic struggle to believe in something/one bigger than himself and with Frances’ idiosyncratic brand of Catholicism. And yet the Washington Post’s review says:
The most unexpected pleasure of this period love story is spending time in the company of people who are engaged in the edifying pursuit of living as Christians — a good reminder that, regardless of the current upheaval in the church, the big questions are still worth asking.
The novel’s epistolary format furnishes an intimate spaciousness in which these great talents form a society of two: where they meet, court, love, exchange beliefs, confess and inevitably part. Letters to and from friends flesh out the romance’s trajectory. I am astonished that first-time novelist Ms Bauer was able to voice two strong, contrasting personalities so true to their time and culture. Bernard’s unrestrainedly lavish love letters to Frances:
In the afternoon I wonder whether the salt water heated by the sun would stain your skin and leave behind a reticulation—an Irish articulation of Venusian sea foam. Your freckles: I want to down them like oysters, having my fill on a rock that no one can find.
And vinegar-veined Frances’ reply:
The Hudson River says hello. It doesn’t know what you see in New England’s blustering surf. It thinks a body of water earns its majesty by knowing how to keep its own counsel.
The push-pull of alternating ravishing and deflating letters seduces the reader into a story that dares to debate ideas and beliefs in the context of literature; into a story of two compelling, irresistible lovers; a story crafted with elan.
ASIDE: It took a full week of thinking about the story before I caught the Catholic subtext of the lovers’ names.
9 out of 10 Recommended to fans of Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor (FRANCES AND BERNARD motivated me to try WISE BLOOD in audiobook format), to members of my family (who will get all the references) and to readers of literary fiction.