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Plenty of writers attempt to tell stories through letters. In fact, English literature has a long tradition of epistolary novels from Bram Stoker's "Dracula" to Saul Bellow's "Herzog." Author Stewart O'Nan's favorite book falls into this category, but with an interesting twist. All the letters here are addressed to dead people. That's just one of the reasons O'Nan says: You must read this.

STEWART O'NAN: I first heard of Christie Hodgen way back in 2001, when I was a judge for the National Endowment for the Arts. Her story of a younger sister dealing with a troubled, possibly mentally ill brother flat knocked me out. The other judges on the panel agreed: Here was a powerhouse writer. I felt privileged to read her work before the rest of the world, so why did it take me so long to discover her second novel, "Elegies for the Brokenhearted," which came out last summer?

I'm not sure how I found the book. Maybe I saw it in a bookstore while I was out on tour. I know it wasn't from word of mouth and definitely not advertising. I hadn't read a review of it either, so it must have been dumb luck running into it somewhere. I remember I didn't like the cover. It was a blah photo of two girls sitting under a cherry tree. And "Elegies for the Brokenhearted"? Wow, I thought, what a terrible title. My initial reaction, from painful and repeated experience, was sympathy for a fellow author.

But wait. Open the book. Here's the epigraph that welcomes you. It's from Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts": The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny 30 times a day for months on end. And on most days, he received more than 30 letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife. It's a warning from Hodgen that we're in for some mordant, bitter stuff - and we are.

The elegies of the title are laments, songs of mourning addressed directly to five people, now dead, who changed the life of our narrator. Mary Murphy is a girl from a broken, messy home. Her older sister Malinda is an addict who disappears for years, leaving Mary behind with her equally unstable mother. While focusing on the troubles of a drunk uncle, a high school laughingstock, an angry college roommate, a tortured composer and her own piece-of-work mother, Mary shows us her halting coming of age, transforming from the quiet kid sister to a wise and reconciled young woman.

Naturally, a book of elegies is going to be sad. But within each separate remembrance, Hodgen is also brutally funny, letting her company of outcasts fight back against a world that spurns them. Her characters aren't grotesques so much as people on the edges. Hodgen's narrator isn't cuddly either. Mary is just as puzzled and angry as her subjects, holding off anyone who comes too close. Add to that the formal challenge of writing in the second person and the inherent structural problems of addressing each of the deceased separately, and there's a degree of difficulty to "Elegies" that might seem insurmountable.

Yet for all its depth and complexity, it's an easy, captivating read that any casual reader can appreciate. With each successive character, we care that much more for Mary, and for them. "Elegies for the Brokenhearted" by Christie Hodgen, forget the bad jacket and crummy title. This is a great book.


CORNISH: Stewart O'Nan's latest novel, "The Odds," comes out next week.

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