First published in May 2014.
Frances and Bernard is Carlene Bauer’s second book and first novel, which follows a volume of memoirs entitled Not That Sort of Girl. The story, which begins in 1957, takes place for the most part in the United States, and much of its action occurs in New York City. An epistolary style has been adopted throughout.
After the first meeting of Frances Reardon and Bernard Eliot – which does not exactly go to plan – occurs at a writer’s colony, Bernard sends Frances a letter which ‘changes everything’. Much of the correspondence occurs between the two protagonists, but there are occasional letters sent to their best friends, Claire and Ted. The opening letter from Frances, which is addressed to Claire, details how she has finished ‘what I think might be a draft of the novel’ which she has been working on since finishing college. She goes on to set out her meeting with Bernard, who wishes to become a poet: ‘I hear John Donne in the poems [he has written] – John Donne prowling around in the boiler room of them, shouting, clanging on pipes with wrenches, trying to get this young man to uncram the lines and cut the poems in half’. In his first letter to Ted, Bernard tells him of Frances, whom he believes to be ‘a little Mother Superiorish… A curious mix of feminine and unfeminine’.
The two begin to correspond with one another around a month after their first encounter. Bernard informs Frances: ‘I very much enjoyed talking with you this summer, and I would like to talk to you some more. But I’m in Italy. And you’re in Philadelphia. So will you talk to me in letters?’ Bernard’s often overpowering questioning nature, which shadows everything else which he writes about at times, allows Frances to flesh out her own responses to him. The whole novel is rather spiritual, and is driven by religion throughout. A lot of their correspondence relates to their Catholicism and Bernard’s conversion, and this element of the story becomes rather repetitive quite quickly. Throughout, their relationship is charted through good times and bad. Small progressive shifts in the ways in which they write to one another can be found, from ‘sincerely’, to ‘yours’, to ‘love’.
In terms of Bauer’s writing, the narrative voices which she has crafted often sound distinct, but there are some overlapping phrases used by both protagonists. The scenes described also often overlap, as one would expect, but many of the details are told again in concurrent letters, which gives a real sense of deja vu at times. Some of her similes and metaphors are lovely – ‘there is something about the lower register of her voice that makes me feel as if I am afloat in an ocean the color of midnight’ – but their use is not overly consistent throughout. The period detail which has been used – Kerouac’s mysticism and jazz music, for example – does help to set the scenes and era in which the novel takes place, but there is not enough of it to cushion the entirety of the book as it goes on. When it reaches around the eighty-page mark, it feels as though the tale could easily take place in any other time or city – its foundations are not concrete, and this is a real shame.
Frances and Bernard has been well envisioned, and we do learn a lot about both protagonists as it goes on. A coherent story has been woven through the medium of letters, but it does become a little bogged down with the theological and philosophical, so that the thread of Frances and Bernard’s relationship and its progression is sometimes lost. The characters are not likeable ones on the whole, but they are relatively interesting, and Bauer has used the epistolary format well to present both protagonists to her readers.