The love letters of 'Frances and Bernard'

Carlene Bauer's shimmering novel imagines a romance based on Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell


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How to talk about Carlene Bauer's debut novel, "Frances and Bernard"? First, what it is: an epistolary novel involving a novelist, Frances, and a poet, Bernard. Inspired by the lives of Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, it imagines all the things that might have been but never were between these two lauded writers, using wholly new, invented characters.

In the letters that open the novel, dated August 1957, and written to their best friends, we hear their first impressions of one another after meeting at a writers' colony: "There was one young man who did bear scrutiny," writes Frances. "Bernard Eliot. Harvard. Descended from Puritans, he claims. ... I know nothing about poetry, except that I either like it or don't. And his I liked very much. 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."

From Bernard: "I met a girl I quite liked -- but not in that way. I think you'd like her too. She looks untouched, as if she grew up on a dairy farm, but she's dry, quick, and quick to skewer, so there's no mistaking that she was raised in a city. Philadelphia. ... Her novel is about a hard-hearted nun who finds herself receiving stigmata. It sounds juvenile, but it's very funny."


"FRANCES AND BERNARD"

By Carlene Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($23).


With wonderful writing, elegant, pithy and witty, the author reeled me in from the very beginning. Two young writers in another, more genteel place and time, a burgeoning friendship, the possibility of romance? It struck me as the perfect confection.

The talk, however, quickly turned to questions of faith, and of Christianity and Catholicism, in particular, which is not in itself a bad thing. I am not averse to explorations of faith, and some of it did indeed resonate:

"Do I think," writes Frances, "we can ever hear God's voice? Well, this goes back to what I said earlier -- I think it might be dangerous to believe we hear him. I am suspicious of what we take to be signs -- they may be only our own desires reflected back to us in an ostensibly fortuitous event."

The protagonists' shared Catholic faith, however, is not simply one more topic of interest, but rather the predominant topic of interest, central to both their lives and who they are as writers. Accordingly, the religious philosophizing of Simone Weil, Augustine, Kierkegaard and others surfaces again and again.

I don't share that particular preoccupation, but I stayed with the story because I liked Frances and Bernard, engaging and irreverent as they are; in letter after letter we witness the evolution of a rich relationship. We learn that Frances doesn't wish to marry or have children, that Bernard wants both. We hear about Bernard teaching freshmen at Harvard ("I'm 10 years younger than Kerouac, and yet the response to his book makes me feel that my shirts are as starched as my father's"), about Frances being a single girl working in New York and living at the Barbizon ("Actresses, writers, models, secretaries, convented away from menfolk so they can play at being career girls without being molested before they get married -- when they'll be molested legally.").

Their friendship, however -- not to mention, any chance of a lasting romance -- is complicated not least of all by Bernard's manic depression, which ultimately lands him in a psychiatric ward, while also pushing him into a crisis of faith.

There isn't a lot of tension in this novel. What it offers instead is a thoughtful exploration of what can reasonably be expected of love, friendship, art. Mostly, though, the questions are of faith.

Which gets to my fundamental problem, which the author evidently anticipated, as Bernard writes to Frances: "Never expect more than a handful of people to understand what you are about when you are writing about God. Or care."

Yes, well, what can I say?

I considered whether the story ultimately fell flat for me because I'm Jewish, but that's too facile an explanation. My faith doesn't keep me from understanding and enjoying the stories of Flannery O'Connor, whose work also grapples with challenging Catholic themes.

In fact, the most successful writing incites our interest and curiosity about things we don't know or don't understand, or never thought about before, or maybe it forces us to look at things we've thought about and see those things in a different light; it cracks us open to the new. "Frances and Bernard" didn't quite crack me open.

What it does do, though, is wrestle with big questions in gorgeous and sharply hewn language. There is much to admire in this smart, ambitious, debut novel.

books

Judy Wertheimer, a writer living in Squirrel Hill, reviews first novels for the Post-Gazette (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com).


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