I’ll preface this review with the fact that I view my lack of religious education (and therefore a lack of appreciation and understanding of the fine theological detail in this book) is a failing on my part, not the author’s. What Carlene Bauer has written in her new novel, Frances and Bernard, is beautifully done – it simply lacked meaning and context for me.
In the summer of 1957, Frances (a writer) and Bernard (a poet) meet at an artists’ colony. She finds him faintly ridiculous, but talented. He sees her as aloof, but intriguing. Bernard writes to a friend about frst meeting Frances –
“A curious mix of feminine and unfeminine – wore a very conventional white dress covered in the smallest of brown flowers and laid her napkin down on her lap with something approaching fussiness, but then thumped the bottom of a ketchup bottle as if she were pile driving.”
Afterward, Bernard writes Frances a letter. Soon they are immersed in a deep friendship that changes the course of their lives.
The book is written entirely as an exchange of letters (technically known as an epistolary novel), predominantly between Frances and Bernard but also between Frances and Bernard’s friends and colleagues. With the current trend of re-telling the stories of ‘famous’ people in a fictitious format, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the very appealing characters Bauer has created in Frances and Bernard are inspired by the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell.
The first half is heavy with spiritual musings by both Frances and Bernard, each exploring how their beliefs influence their work and lives (although in no way is it preachy) –
“To ask to hear God’s voice, to ask for signs – this seems to me impertinence of the highest order. My aunts and my sister, however, would cluck their tongues at me and say I have intellectualized myself out of one of the great pleasures of the Catholic faith: signs and wonders, and a network of saints to arrange for them. They certainly do believe God talks to us, and with a megaphone.”
Honestly, some of it went straight through to the keeper for me whereas other bits were amusing. Frances writes to Bernard –
“Prayer is a mystery I should not approach. I’m not very good at it. I don’t really do it unless I have it written out for me. Anything I came up with on my own would sound like my asking for a pony for Christmas.”
I struggled a little with putting Frances and Bernard in an appropriate historical and social context. The book opens in the late fifties and, amongst talk of ‘proper’ behaviour and living a spiritual life, Bernard also mentions sleeping with a woman (out-of-wedlock) and Frances reports a dinner party discussion about whether or not she is a lesbian. What was expected of Bernard and Frances at that time? To what extent was their conduct considered scandalous? Bohemian? Inappropriate? I don’t know the answers (but again the failing is on my part, not Bauer’s).
I almost abandoned the book midway through, remembering my resolution to stop reading books I wasn’t enjoying. But old habits die-hard and I decided to give it another chapter. And then the tempo of the book changed. From religion and spirituality to mental illness and romance.
What did I love? Lots. The love affair unfolds perfectly and the opportunity to see it from different perspectives was fabulous. The use of letters to tell the story made me nostalgic for a time when we wrote letters (and made me wonder about the cost of email and social media). Bauer’s writing is rich and beautiful, her characters are compelling. Frances is restrained, measured and occasionally sharp; Bernard is extravagant, passionate and loud.
“May 16, 1961 Dear John – I hope you are enjoying Miami. Very perverse and un-Percy, a vacation in Miami. I send my regards to Julia and her family. Peel an orange on a patio for me… Bernard.”
And the ending? Exquisite.
3/5 Ultimately it was a battle of halves for me – during the first half, I almost abandoned this book. The second half, I couldn’t put down.
I received my copy of Frances and Bernard from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. Read an excerpt here and take a moment to visit the publisher’s exceptionally good webpage for this book.
There’s only one thing for Frances and Bernard – pound cake. As Frances writes to her dear friend, Claire –
“Could you send me the recipe for that pound cake you made for dessert on Saturday? Although I have a feeling mine will turn out to be a brick the first few times – you’ve always had a lighter touch than I when it comes to baking. I am convinced it is because you don’t hold grudges.”
I like pound cake with a lemony zing.