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Frances and Bernard Hardcover – February 5, 2013

4.0 out of 5 stars 66 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Bauer follows her memoir about growing up evangelical, Not That Kind of Girl (2009), with a debut novel of stunning subtlety, grace, and depth. 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. Frances can be lacerating; Bernard is extravagant. And Bauer is phenomenally fluent in the voices and sensibilities she so intently emulates, composing dueling letters of breathtaking wit, seduction, and heartbreak. Spanning a stormy decade, Bauer’s piercing novel is dynamic in structure, dramatic in emotion and event, and fierce in its inquiry into religion, love, and art. --Donna Seaman

Review

"A story of conversion, shattered love and the loss of faith, recalling 20th century masters like Graham Greene and Walker Percy…Frances is refreshingly down-to-earth in her spiritual convictions…Bauer gets right… the shifting balance of literary ambition and emotional need, Yeats’s old choice between perfection of the life or of the work. Bauer is herself a distinctive stylist who can write about Simone Weil or Kierkegaard with wit and charm. A fresh voice thinking seriously about what a religiously committed life might have felt like and perhaps, in our own far-from tranquil period, might feel like again." - New York Times Book Review

"Graceful and gem-like…. Through Bauer’s sharp, witty, and elegant prose, [Frances and Bernard] become vibrant and original characters…. These are not your typical lovebirds, but writers with fierce and fine intellects.… We are reminded of the power of correspondence — the flirtation of it, the nervousness, the delicious uncertainty of writing bold things and then waiting days, weeks, or even months for a reply. After finishing this sweet and somber novel, we might sigh and think, 'It's a shame we don’t write love letters anymore' — before stopping for a moment to marvel at the subtlety of what Bauer has wrought out of history and a generous imagination, and being thankful that someone still is."

--Boston Globe

"Frances and Bernard portrays two writers drawn into a friendship sparked by mutual admiration. They elegantly convey their reflections, encouragements and chastisements in letters written over a span of 11 years…Bauer captures the style and language of the period with gleeful dexterity.…Bauer is masterful in whipping up the frenzy of Bernard’s unstable certainty that she is the answer to his Olympian quest…Bauer, who has published a memoir about her evangelical childhood and subsequent conversion to Catholicism, writes with authority and gusto about issues of faith. The prose here is exquisite, winding between narrative momentum and lofty introspection. And she employs the epistolary form nimbly, providing an intimate, uncluttered space for her characters to develop. 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 Washington Post

"A debut novel of stunning subtlety, grace, and depth. 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. Bauer is phenomenally fluent in the voices and sensibilities she so intently emulates, composing dueling letters of breathtaking wit, seduction, and heartbreak. Spanning a stormy decade, Bauer’s piercing novel is dynamic in structure, dramatic in emotion and event, and fierce in its inquiry into religion, love, and art."

--Booklist

"There are so many reasons to love this perfect novel, not least because before our eyes, Bauer quietly reveals the lovers to each other, and to themselves, while she explores all of the important problems of faith, work, art, marriage, passion, and how best to lead the life that you think you're meant to live. Frances and Bernard is smart and clear and deep and beautiful. I worship it." – Jane Hamilton

"I'll never stop raving about FRANCES AND BERNARD. I loved, admired and devoured it; didn't want it to end. What is better than a good novel in letters? A great one. Carlene Bauer has written a book that is dear, brilliant, and unforgettable."

--Elinor Lipman

"Short but satisfying...well written, engrossing, and succeeds in making Frances and Bernard’s shared interest in religion believable and their relationship funny, sweet, and sad. A lovely surprise."

--Publishers Weekly (starred)

"A series of erudite letters, some of which are exchanged between the two rich and somewhat eccentric protagonists, and some are written by these characters to others. This remarkable method of storytelling provides snapshots of the events that shape the story."

--Library Journal

"I have rarely encountered historical fiction that seems to spring so authentically from the period in which it's set. The two correspondents in Carlene Bauer's book, along with their families and friends, come wittily alive in the letters they exchange, and those letters end up accumulating a terrific narrative and emotional force. Bauer recaptures a time in which people took one another more seriously, an era when they still inclined toward epistolary explorations instead of self-promoting tweets. Frances and Bernard is one of the best first novels I've read in years."

--Thomas Mallon

"Dazzling and gorgeously written, FRANCES AND BERNARD features a pair of brilliant, complicated writers who present themselves to each other in letters that form the most exciting epistolary novel in recent memory. A slim book, it still seems to say all of the important things about friendship, faith, love, the literary life, and especially the costs of living as an artist while still inhabiting the real world. It’s a marvel."

– Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words

"I had ten pages left as the bus pulled into my home station, and I wanted to murder the driver for rousting me from my seat. Instead of heading home, I stood in the parking lot and finished the book right then and there. I did not merely love Frances and Bernard; I worried myself sick over them. And the prose! So delectable you could eat it for dessert."

– Monica Wood, author of When We Were the Kennedys and Any Bitter Thing

"A truly original, very moving novel about how sometimes the deepest relationships in our lives are also the most impossible. The letters between Frances and Bernard-- which begin as witty, sometimes wary, and full of unusual confidences about love and spiritual matters-- explode with passion on the page. My eyes filled with tears. It is wonderful to read something so rare and true. What a rich writer and two unforgettable lovers!"

-- Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille: a novel of Monet and The Physician of London (American Book Award)

"A surprising and insightful novelblooming with richness and intelligence…. The two [main characters] share and joust and tease and advise and explore and analyze and admire …. The careful trajectory of their intertwining and deepening relation becomes "a beautiful thing" — these two voices in Bauer’s fine rendering sing counterpoint that is exhilarating, and heartbreaking…. Their relation stirs into the love, for each, of a lifetime. A marvelous tracing of these lives."

-- Buffalo News
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (February 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547858248
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547858241
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #591,915 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Tracy Marks VINE VOICE on January 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"It's terrible," Bernard said to Frances soon after they met. "You answered a letter and befriended a monster."

Bernard is not a monster; he only believes himself to be. In Carlene Bauer's epistolary novel, he and Frances begin a long-term correspondence after meeting at a writer's colony in the late 1950's. The book consists primarily of their letters, and occasional letters to and from Claire (Frances' friend), and Ted (Bernard's ex-roommate), who serve primarily as confidantes.

Bernard is a poet; Frances is a fiction writer. Initially, he lives in Boston, she in New York. But as their correspondence deepens and their feelings for each other heat up, he moves to New York, and they begin to redefine their friendship. In the process, they explore that amorphous boundary between friendship and love, coming face to face with who they really are and the choices they need to make in order to be true to themselves.

Frances is controlled, self-contained, aloof, and cautious. In college she had been referred to as "Fanny Price" - after Jane Austen's prim MANSFIELD PARK heroine. Frances is traditional in her Catholic religiosity, but untraditional in her dedication to writing during a decade in which female aspiration centered entirely on marriage.

Bernard said of her in a letter, "She grew up among women who love harder than they think, and she has strengthened her innate intractability in order to keep tunneling toward a place where she could write undisturbed by the demands of conventional femininity. So she may always think harder than she loves."

Bernard, in contrast, is emotionally effusive, brimming with puppy-doglike affection, and manic-depressive - a rare 1950's rebellious radical.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was deeply skeptical when I picked up this slim novel. An epistolary novel? A literary homage? Both of these are, in my experience, all too likely to end with me grimacing in distaste and flinging the book against the wall, annoyed by a novelist trying more to convince me of how clever he/she is than to entice me into believing in the reality of the characters who inhabit the pages.

So this turned out to be a warning against drawing pat conclusions about a book based on its form or ostensible subject.

That said, this will definitely not be a book that suits all readers. It is made up of letters, and if you can't deal with that, well, this isn't something you should spend your time on. It's also a book revolving around two characters, both of whom are writers, and they spend a lot of time talking about Big Ideas and discussing other things that writers tend to debate, like annoying editors and the difficulty in getting the ideas in one's brain onto the page in the right way. If that sounds pretentious to you, again, this won't be the right book for you. The first half of the book includes many segments of letters in which the duo (Frances, born Catholic, and Bernard, a convert) discuss theology and the nature of the divine. To me, that fit with the characters and the narrative; others may not respond the same way.

So, why did I end up loving this book?
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Have you ever wished you could stumble upon a secret cache of letters between two witty, deep, literate writers as they muse upon a multitude of subjects including life, faith, friendship, love, books, and the writing life? Or have you ever wished to eavesdrop on a conversation between two intellectuals or authors, gifted in the use of ideas and language, as they converse about their lives, work and their observations on the intersection of the two? Sometimes I see people riding on the train, or lunching at a restaurant, hear a snatch of their conversation, and wish I could just listen in.

That is what reading this book feels like. You feel privileged to read over the shoulders of Frances and Bernard as they exchange thoughts in writing about light and deep subjects. Frances and Bernard meet at a writer's colony in the summer of 1957. They recognize a kindred spirit in each other.

Frances describes Bernard to a friend:

"There was one young man who did bear scrutiny. Bernard Eliot. Harvard. Descended from Puritans, he claims. Another poet. But very good. Well, I guess I should say more than very good. Great? ....I hear John Donne in the poems--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. We had a nice lunch one day....He said an astounding thing at lunch. He asked me if I had a suitor--his word--and I said no. I was pretty sure this was just to start conversation. Then, after a pause, while I was shaking some ketchup out over my french fries, he said, chin in hand, as if he were speaking to me from within some dream he was having, "I think men have a tendency to wreck beautiful things." I wanted to laugh.
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