And yet epistolary novels like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) and Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker prize-winning The White Tiger (2008) are some of the greatest in the literary canon.
It’s a genre which allows writers greater flexibility as it reveals so much of a person’s inner character and life without recourse to an omniscient narrator, and adds a layer of intense realism to unfolding stories and dramas.
Novelist, screenwriter and playwright Nigel Williams knows all about letter writing… he is one of the sixty-something generation which was virtually born with pen in hand and trained from early years to put down all thoughts and communications on paper.
What most of his contemporaries have not been able to do, however, is become a comic genius of the epistolary novel, creating caustic, outrageously rude and funny satires out of the dark side of suburbia.
And after an absence of ten years or more, the author of The Wimbledon Poisoner is back with a brilliant black comedy that has a laugh-out-loud moment on almost every page.
Unfaithfully Yours is an exuberant, witty and yet richly melancholic tale of love, lust and intrigue related entirely through letters between four mismatched, middle-aged couples.
As the correspondence flows so too do the unedifying details of a murky, inter-linked past involving shared Mediterranean villa holidays, shared wives, a suspicious death and dark secrets that have hitherto definitely not been shared.
‘I am writing to you because I think my husband may be having sex. I am not sure with whom he is having it but it is certainly not with me.’
When starchy schoolteacher Elizabeth Price writes to private detective Roland ‘Orlando’ Gibbons in her quest to find out the truth about her lawyer husband Gerald’s suspected affair, she unwittingly sets off a chain of correspondence that reunites four formerly close-knit couples.
They all live just a few streets away from each other in Putney, a well-heeled London suburb where relationships can so often prove to be ‘red in tooth and claw.’
Three of the couples are still married, one is a widower after the death of his wife in ‘suspicious circumstances’ ten years earlier but all are now strangely estranged from each other.
In a series of letters – the preferred form of communication for those who believe that emails don’t ‘make the smallest attempt at honesty’ and that ‘your prose style tells the world more about you than almost anything else’ – each of the principal players is far more self-revealing than they would ever be in person.
From the arrogant, sexually rampant barrister Gerald Price to Sam Dimmock, the dull dentist whose sexually frustrated wife declares he is ‘really only ever excited by teeth’ and the lonely, bitter widower Mike Larner, whose BBC wildlife documentaries were eclipsed when David Attenborough ‘smarmed his way into total control of all animals everywhere,’ this is a cast of misfits who all married the wrong person.
Their letters – from love notes to condolence messages – together paint an uproarious and moving portrait of four disastrous marriages, and a story about how little we really know about those closest to us.
With its theatrical blend of farce, misunderstandings, revelations, hilariously cruel humour and unexpected poignancy, Unfaithfully Yours has all the makings of a West End hit.
As scriptwriter for the successful 2005 TV drama Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren, Mr Williams could perhaps now apply his undoubted talents to what could be a triumphant stage version.
In the meantime, the book is the perfect warm-up act…
(Corsair, paperback, £8.99)