This gorgeously written book by Carlene Bauer is a love story, presented as a series of letters between two friends. It chronicles the relationship of Frances and Bernard as they meet at a writers’ colony, develop a friendship via increasingly intimate letters, eventually become lovers, and finally part ways.
I first chose to read the book because a new friend loaned it to me. She thought of me when she read it, and I was so touched that she would think of me at all, let alone in regards to something so personal as literature. Most of the time when people recommend a book to me, it is so not me, it’s laughable. Amish romance? (Really, I seem like that type?) Or Tom Clancy? (Sorry, Punk.)
But my perceptive friend nailed it. I saw myself in both of these characters, which is what we all want in a great story. I read recently that when we tell someone, “you’ve got to read this book,” what we’re really saying is, “I’m in this book.” And so I am.
Frances, so serious about her writing and her faith, says “writing is the only thing I feel at peace while doing. If I were taken from it, I would be a bitter, bitter woman.” Amen. When Bernard wrote to her that “you go to mass daily but sit right in front, so as not to have to witness the mass delusion that is the rote childish piety of little old ladies,” I laughed out loud. I really do sit in the front row! And the reason Bernard gives is probably far closer to the truth than I would have been able to put down in words.
Is it paradoxical that I also saw myself in passionate, mad Bernard? Frances tells him, “your disease is a gift, even as it is an awful burden, because when you are not ill, you move forward with a fever that is a shadow of your mania, and that fever gives you poems, and teaching, and storytelling, and the ability to argue your love for me.”
When he does argue the rationality of his love for her, he insists on his sanity, saying, “if I were mad, this would be rhyming.” He begs, “Please have faith that God is putting me in your way because he thinks you are capable of loving more than you have ever known. Please be as brave as I think you are.”
Her reply (is it not brave?)– “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 keep their well-being in mind. I hope I can forget how much I love you,”– had me in tears.
There are many beautiful turns of phrase in this novel. Who wouldn’t want it said of her that she “has pre-Raphaelite vapors curling around her Katherine Hepburn angles”? Or that “there was something leaf-green and nascent at the bottom of her deep blue reserve”? That’s the loveliest metaphor for hope I have ever read.
My favorite line in the entire book, though, is this:
“…she knew me when I was at my most Bernard and I knew her when she was at her most Frances.”
I can’t think of a single thing I’d cherish more than to be known when I am at my most me.