Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

2013 has gotten off to a slow start reading-wise, both because I've been watching too many movies (thanks to the son who is egging me on to watch all the films on AFI's 100 best films list) and because too many of the books I've read have failed to excite me. But I feel like Frances and Bernard is going to change the year's direction.

Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel, featuring the letters exchanged between two young writers who meet at a writer's colony in the late 1950s and continue their acquaintance through correspondence (reportedly inspired by the lives of Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor--but very much a creative work of fiction). Frances is a novelist, living with her working class family in Philadelphia; Bernard is a poet, raised in an upper class family in Boston, where he now lives with a roommate. Frances is a devout Catholic, Bernard a recent convert to Catholicism, and many of their early letters discuss religious topics (e.g., "Who is the Holy Spirit to you?"). Then Frances moves to New York, and their exchange perks up with her descriptions of living at the Barbizon. Of course, they also discuss the progress of their writing.

Just as the book starts to get a bit bogged down in what feel like overly intellectualized exchanges, the pace picks up. Bernard has a breakdown and loses his faith. Shortly thereafter, he moves to New York and their letters become less frequent, but we are kept informed of their activities through letters to friends and editors. And what do you know? Frances and Bernard become lovers, something Frances has resisted because she does not believe that a woman can write and have a family.

To retain some surprises for anyone who decides to read the book, I won't say more about the fate of their relationship, but I will say I was moved by these two characters and their efforts to define themselves, their work, and their relationships (with each other, with family, and with God) in the face of the challenges of mental illness and the restricted roles of women at the time. I should note that I am positively predisposed to epistolary novels--I find the device of placing the character as the writer of letters, when well done, creates a particularly authentic voice. So I came to Frances and Bernard with positive expectations. While I felt there were some flaws in the way Bauer constructed the book (e.g., we normally get both sides of the Frances-Bernard exchanges, but occasionally a reply is omitted; we get selected letters involving other correspondents only when Bauer wants to give us some new perspective on a situation), the voices Bauer created were elegant and individual.

At dinner the other night, I was trying to describe Frances and Bernard and my friend Barb responded, "You're not drawing me into this book, Laurel." If this review doesn't draw you into Frances and Bernard either, I would just say: Give it a try.

Favorite passages:
The blackness is a hand that passes over my face to draw me a bath of heavy, ache-riven sleep, and if I want to come out of it I have to make a constant effort to see what is going on around me and then decide if I want to care about where to put my feet and hands. Impatient only for something to drag me off into unconsciousness. No desire even to write. I look at typewritten drafts, and the sentences slide off the paper and trail off into the distance; the sentences break up into letters, hovering like a cloud of gnats over my typewriter.

My people, for better or worse, taught me to hide what was too difficult to bear.

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