cover image Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard

Carlene Bauer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23 (208p) ISBN 978-0-547-85824-1

Frances and Bernard are writers. She’s a novelist who studied at Iowa, Catholic, a bit prim, but tart-tongued. He’s a poet, descended from Puritans but a convert to Catholicism, prone to fits of mania. They meet in the late 1950s in a writer’s colony and become friends. If this sounds like Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, it should: Frances and Bernard are their fictionalized avatars, with Frances the more fictional, since she’s neither Southern nor suffering from an incurable disease. Short but satisfying, this epistolary novel covers roughly nine years, as Frances and Bernard grow closer, at first through letters, then visits, always fending off questions from themselves and others about whether they could be more than friends. If Bauer makes things better for O’Connor than they were in actuality, she does it without cheating on her characters, who, whatever their real life inspirations, are fictional and obligated only to work in that form. Bauer’s debut novel (after her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl) is 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. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit. (Feb.)