I’ve been shuffling books about Flannery O’Connor among my to-be-read stacks since 2009, when Brad Gooch published his acclaimed biography of the southern writer. Then The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald landed next to Gooch’s book, as did Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. All this after I had re-read Flannery’s novel Wise Blood because someone, in some literary publication (I can’t recall which one), said Wise Blood is the #1 novel about religion ever written. My college reading of it didn’t stick, so I took another look.
It’s no wonder, then, I snatched up Carlene Bauer’s new novel Frances and Bernard, which loosely imagines a love relationship between O’Connor and New England poet Robert Lowell. By loosely, I mean the plot stretches far beyond reality’s home base. Case in point, Flannery suffered from lupus, diagnosed when she was 25, and Bauer’s Frances is perfectly healthy. She’s also from Philadelphia, and Flannery lived in Georgia.
But Bauer never intended to mirror the lives of these two literary giants. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, she said, “I didn’t want to write historical fiction, but I want readers to know that it was the temperaments, minds, and voices of these specific people that set me off. As I was writing, though, I forgot that they were them; I used the information I’d been given, but they became my people. I want people to read it and think about Frances and Bernard.”
Written in letters and set during the 1950’s, Frances and Bernard draws in its readers with the emotional force of those “temperaments, minds and voices.” Most impressive is Bauer’s ability to capture the essence of the delicate tightrope the two walk between friendship and passion. Bernard fiercely desires Frances, while Frances resists, fearful of his large personality and determined to devote her life to writing. In their correspondence, they energetically discuss their Catholic faith and literary lives; their needs and fears about family and love; and their unique, strong-minded differences driven in Bernard by clinical madness and in Frances by self-imposed remove. The two write from Maine, Italy, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
You don’t have to be familiar with the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell to enjoy this book. That’s a good thing; however, knowing there’s a connection to these two literary giants is distracting. As the relationship unfolded between Frances and Bernard, I couldn’t stop wondering how much of it belonged to O’Connor and Lowell. But the distraction is a minor complaint compared to the magnetic story that captivates, warmly and insistently. Indeed, reading this small, exquisite novel is like discovering a packet of letters in the attic and sitting right down on the floor to read them, lost in the epistolary intimacy with the day slipping away.