Novels in Letters

I love reading epistolary novels — once in a while, it’s really quite refreshing to read narrative that’s broken down into pieces of interesting text (e.g. letters, reports, memos, etc.) rather than plod through long chapters. There’s also the wicked fun of reading other people’s correspondence and attempting to piece together a story based on them.

My favorite epistolary novels include Dracula by Bram Stoker, Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock, Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster,  The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and even Meg Cabot’s Every Boy’s Got One. I read a couple more recently: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman, and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.

Up the Down Staircase is a story revolving around Sylvia Barrett, a teacher in the 60’s inner city public school system in New York, told through letters, passed notes, school circulars, faculty memos, student essays, lesson plans, students’ notebooks, and the contents of the suggestion box.

Sylvia Barrett is on her first job as an English teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School, and is bewildered by the realities of the experience: rowdy, troubled kids; a high dropout rate; horrendous spelling and grammar; dilapidated classrooms; lack of proper instructional materials; and the limitations of the  system towards the welfare of the both the students and the teachers.

The novel takes us through a whole school year at Calvin Coolidge High, from Miss Barrett’s first day in class, surprise inspections by her subject coordinator, her constant tussles with the administrative assistant, her relationships with her co-teachers and other school staff, her efforts to make a difference in her students’ lives, and events that allow her to reflect on her role as a teacher.

I’m not a teacher, but I have friends who are teachers, and I do get in touch with a lot of education-related issues at work. I imagine our teachers, especially those in the remote provinces, have to deal with a lot more than Miss Barrett did in the ’60s, but what’s great about this book is how it captures the sentiments of a teacher struggling with the educational system:

“We have keys but no locks (except in lavatories), blackboards but no chalk, students but no seats, teachers but no time to teach. The library is closed to the students,” Sylvia writes to her friend Ellen. “I think I might be crazy to stay on here. And yet — there is a certain phrase we have, a kind of in-joke: ‘Let it be a challenge.’ “

It’s a candid account of a teacher’s life, alternately depressing and comical and touching, and it provides great insight into the vocation, as well as wisdom and inspiration to those in the field of teaching or are seriously considering it.

Ella Minnow Pea is another epistolary novel — a novel in letters, literally and figuratively. Set in the island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina, Ella Minnow Pea (also the name of the main character) read fast and it’s LMNOP) is about a nation ruled by the immortal phrase “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” coined by Nevin Nollop.

The phrase is inscribed on a memorial statue in the town center, and when one of the letters falls off (Z), the island’s Council takes it as a divine sign and decides to strike off “Z” from the Nolloptian alphabet and impose severe penalties that lead up to banishment for offenders who continue to use the forbidden letters.

The glue that has been holding the letters on the sign has been wearing off, and the letters fall off one by one, leading the Council to take on a totalitarian approach in banning the use of the fallen letters from the alphabet (and as the letters are struck out, they disappear from the novel’s narrative as well) and it becomes increasingly difficult for the citizens of Nollop to follow the island’s laws.

It’s a brilliant commentary on totalitarian rule, freedom, and citizenship, driving its point with a silly premise that results in disastrous consequences for the island nation.  The solution is equally silly as well: Ella has to prove that Nollop isn’t divine by coming up with a pangram (a phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet with minimal repetition) that’s better than “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”!

As her friends, family and neighbors are expelled one by one from the island, young Ella must keep her wits about her to beat Nollop’s pangram and bring back the Nollop that they all loved.

Ella Minnow Pea is one of the smartest novels I’ve ever read, and it’s highly entertaining too — I wanted to break into applause after I finished the book!  We don’t often think about the impact of one letter, but the novel proves just how big a difference one letter can make. It’s genius, really, and a word lover’s delight, especially as the novel becomes lipogrammatic (avoiding particular letters or words) as the  letters are dropped one by one and substitutions are called in (the days of the week are particularly hilarious!) in this inventive linguistic experiment.

Here is what  Ella writes just before she is down to the last five letters:

Letter to me:

Onlee 24 owers remain.


Tiles plop. 8 tiles plomp plomp all in one nite.

Tee ent is near.

So lon A!

So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)

So lon I!

So lon R! (Are ewe lonesome tonite?)

So lon S!

So lon T!

So lon W!

So lone O twin (Remnant-twin is all alone now.)

Now onlee 5 remain at 12 o’time. Onlee 5. Onlee 5 remain.

Wear is tat paint?



(And I’m still laughing my head off!)

Both Up the Down Staircase and Ella Minnow Pea are among my best reads for the 2010 (so far), and I have no doubt they’ll stay in the list even by the end of the year!


Up the Down Staircase, hardcover, 5/5 stars
Ella Minnow Pea, trade paperback, 5/5 stars

Books 31-32 for 2010
D for A-Z Challenge

*cover image courtesy of


10 thoughts on “Novels in Letters”

  1. I have heard great things about Ella Minnow Pea and so have it sitting on my TBR stack.

    Have you read Nick Bantock? Almost all his books are episotary novels. Holly’s Inbox by Holly Denham (I think) is also that way but through e-mails and very light hearted. I though it was funny while Nick Bantock’s are more serious and involved.

  2. I enjoy a good epistolary novel once and a while also-In modern novels I like The Guernsey Island Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society-in older novels I like Pamela and the greatest epistolary novel of all time Clarisa both by Samuel Richardson-I guess in time this genre will be replace with “twitter novels” in which all thoughts must be expressed in 140 words or less!

  3. @WonderBunny- yup, I have most of Nick Bantock’s books! Love the art, the text is okay although sometimes he borders on hokey.
    Will try and find Holly’s Inbox.

  4. @Mel — Thanks for the suggestions. The GILPPPS is really intriguing, I’ve been meaning to hunt down a copy, it kills me that I passed on a copy at Book Sale at P145, and now I want to kick myself for it hahaha.

    Will look for Pamela and Clarissa too :)

    Well, there are email novels already, so I guess Tweetnovels aren’t very far off :D

  5. Great review, Blooey! I suddenly realized, oo nga, Dracula IS an epistolary novel. And The Historian, wasn’t that such a great book! and i LOVE Ella Minnow Pea! (it took me ages to get my hands on this one) Looks like this post generated another bunch of TBRs for me. Thanks! :)

  6. @Aloi- there’s something wrong with my open id — I’ve been wanting to comment on your blog but it won’t sign me in… Will try switching to google muna.

    :D Epistolary novels are so much fun!

  7. You must read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff if you haven’t already. It’s a true story about books, friendship and wartime, all in letter form. Wonderful.

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