Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell met at Yaddo, a writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1948. They continued writing letters to one another until O’Connor’s death in 1964.
While the pair never engaged in any real-life trysts—“Flannery, I love you very much,” Lowell wrote in 1954, tacking on the caveat “(This isn’t a proposal; I have other eggs to fry)”—Carlene Bauer lets her imagination be her guide.
Based on their correspondence, Frances and Bernard concocts their imagined romance. After a chance meeting at a writer’s colony, Bernard Elliot suggests that he and Frances Reardon begin exchanging letters—despite the fact that they’ve barely spoken to each other. Surprisingly, romance isn’t the initial driving force. Instead, it’s their mutual interest in literature and spirituality that propels their correspondence forward. Unlike most exchanges, which spend the first half of the conversation dallying with small talk, Bernard skips straight to the point: “Who is the Holy Spirit to you?” Their subsequent letters over the next ten years follow a similar pattern to the first, diving into each other’s most intimate thoughts, forming the meat of this unexpected novel.
While the epistolary novel has waned in popularity in recent years, this structured framework works somewhat well in Frances and Bernard. Not being particularly religious myself, I found the spiritual conversations centering mainly on Catholicism for the first third of the novel to be difficult to push through. The story felt dry—strangely impersonal, despite the formatting and the topic of conversation. Their opening letters felt more like two people displaying their academic credentials than a correspondence between friends. Still, the little details of Bernard’s day job as an editor of the Crimson and Frances’ progression as a young writer in NYC kept me turning the pages. Certainly, the gaps between the dates at the top of each letter provided a small thrill—what had transpired creating such a long gap?—but I found myself longing for a bit more connective tissue to ramp up the tension.
Still, when the rising action comes, it comes for your soul. While I shouldn’t have been surprised based on the book’s links to Lowell and O’Connor’s lives, I found myself unprepared for the sudden shift from lofty spiritual chat to full-blown love affair—complete with a questioning of identity, a crisis of faith, and a series of mental breakdowns.
Most striking, however, was the examination of the choices a woman faces when it comes to balancing art and love. It’s noted off the bat that Frances is plain, prim, and reserved. While she takes pleasure in sharing her opinions on literature and challenging minor characters who underestimate her, I frequently found myself wondering if her supposed lack of beauty was an easy out. Do you have to be plain to have a personality? Do you have to be plain to choose your work over the possibility of love? Or does Frances assume this mantle of insecurity as an excuse to retreat? Suddenly confronted with a choice she hadn’t seen coming, she doesn’t even know the depth of her own emotions:
“A normal woman would know what to feel or why she was feeling what she felt, or she’d just say, To hell with feelings, I’ll take the money and run.”
The female artist faces choices that simply aren’t thrust upon men in similar situations. How often are men asked to choose between love and their careers? Off the top of my head, I can’t name a single one. In the context of 1950s and ’60s America, it’s commendable and brave to see Frances choose her work. Yet, it’s a decision that pains her.
“Writing is the only thing I feel at peace while doing. If I were taken from it, I would be a bitter, bitter woman. I am going to trust that you want my books to be in the world as much as you want me to be in the world, and I pray you can keep their well-being in mind. I hope I can forget how much I love you.”
I did appreciate Bauer’s kindness towards O’Connor’s fictional avatar. Unlike her real life counterpart, Frances was not diagnosed with Lupus or any other debilitating illnesses. Certainly, in comparison with Bernard, Frances lived a fairly straight-forward life. While her father’s dementia felt like an illusion to Frances’ own eventual decline, there was nothing on the page to strongly imply that she wouldn’t just carry on writing.
Ultimately, the epistolary style proved difficult, erecting walls between the reader and the action. While there is a lot of content to mull over, there’s still so much excluded from the page by Frances’ reticence or the simple fact that each letter describes past actions, rather than scenes unfolding before your eyes. I found myself drawn into their world, yet simultaneously frustrated for my lack of immediate access.
Broken hearts, alienation of faith, and literary ambition—Frances and Bernard is a slow burn with a sudden crescendo.
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[…] Frances and Bernard lets us imagine all the what ifs of a romance between pen pals Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor. Confession: the turning point was so unexpected that I actually teared up and had to put the book down for a bit. Raves: 1950s and ’60s America, writers, bittersweet, broken hearts. […]