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Archive for the ‘Retellings & Reimaginings’ Category

My disappointment with Rebecca notwithstanding, I wanted to see how, and whether, the story told by du Maurier would hold up in a modern retelling. Fortuitously, two different YA retellings were published in the last year or so:

New Girl

New Girl was written by Paige Harbison and published by Harlequin Teen in January 2012.

thorn abbey

Thorn Abbey was written by Nancy Ohlin and published by Simon Pulse on May 7. Both authors are new to me.

My overall impression of both books can be summed up in a single word: meh. I have concluded that Rebecca simply doesn’t translate well to the modern world.

Interestingly both New Girl and Thorn Abbey were set in boarding schools in New England. Why, you ask, were both of these retellings set in a boarding school? I have no idea. In both cases, Rebecca was the extremely popular girl who had disappeared the year before, leaving behind her grieving boyfriend – Max, natch – and a whole bunch of people who were pretty irritated that her place was being filled by the narrator. In both books our narrator gets Rebecca’s dorm room, and her moderately crazy roommate, the Mrs. Danvers character, who goes out of her way to sabotage the main character’s ability to fit in at the school.

So, I didn’t love either of them. I liked New Girl a tiny smidge more than Thorn Abbey, although I have a friend who preferred Thorn Abbey to New Girl. Here is why:

Thorn Abbey failed for me because the story started out as straight retelling, and then it veered into a very strange mashup of Rebecca and paranormal/ghost possession. I am fine with paranormal romance, and I wouldn’t absolutely object to a retelling of Rebecca that had paranormal/fantasy/sci fi elements (hello, I really liked Diana Peterfreund’s speculative fiction Persuasion retelling And Darkness Shows the Stars) but I want the book to be intentionally that. This felt like an after thought. As though, at some point, someone told the author: you know what would make this book really different? Ghost possession! And she was all: sure, I’ll go with that.

New Girl had it’s own problems, though, including the whole “unnamed narrator” conceit. Daphne du Maurier can get away with it because she’s Daphne du Maurier. But for me, it was just too cute and it didn’t work. Give the girl a name (before the last few pages).

New Girl also made an effort to flesh out Rebecca’s character and provide a reasonable and coherent explanation for why she was such a terrible person – she had really poor self-esteem and sought peer approval in a very self-destructive way. In the context, though, of the Rebecca universe created by du Maurier that reason is not at all consistent with the character that du Maurier created. The original Rebecca had an abundance of self-esteem as du Maurier wrote her – so much that she refused to be bound by society’s limitations on her behavior.

In the end, though, I just don’t think that the story of Rebecca works in a modern teen context. In the original Rebecca, the protagonist was married to Max and had, literally, no where to go. I don’t like her weakness, but I understand it. But in the modern retellings, the weakness of the narrator in sticking with a boy who is supposed to be in love to someone else smacks of self-loathing and cowardice. There is no reason that she would behave the way she does. All of the social boundaries that provide a structure for the original novel don’t exist in the modern world.

This is similar, in my mind, to the problems that exist when authors try to simply wholesale import Jane Austen’s world into a modern context. Today, Lizzie and Darcy would thumb their respective noses at their families and move in together. Marianne and Elinor would get jobs and marry the men of their choosing on their own terms. And Anne Elliot would never have broken off her engagement to Captain Wentworth.

Today, Max would just dump Rebecca before she disappears and move on to another girl that he could genuinely love. Retelling a story that relies upon no-longer-extant historical conventions to make sense in the modern world is difficult to do convincingly without setting up some other social structure in it’s place to explain the character’s actions. It might be possible to set Rebecca in the old West, or in a highly religious society, or in a fantasy world where there are similar social structures. An author could go backwards, and write it steampunk, or forward to space opera or dystopian, but tossing it into a 2013 boarding school in New England – well, I just don’t think it works.

So where is the flintlock fantasy version of Rebecca? Because I would totally read that!

In the end, while both New Girl and Thorn Abbey were fine in terms of writing, editing, and all of those mechanical details that are important, and there is nothing about them that would prevent me from reading something else written by the authors, the story itself just didn’t work for me.

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The legend of King Arthur has provided literary inspiration for more than 800 years. One of the earliest was Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, originally published in 1450. I have not read Malory’s compilation, and unless I find myself taking some sort of a medieval lit course, it is fairly unlikely that I will ever read this one.

I am going to largely ignore the more modern retellings to mention three here that I highly recommend as having stood the test of time:

First, we have T.H. White’s 1958 classic The Once and Future King. I first read this book as a child, when I checked it out the library, and again, as an adult when I, yes, checked it out of the library for my daughter. I remembered that I had loved it, and brought it home for her when she was in around the fifth grade. She was completely uninterested in it. I, on the other hand, settled in for a long weekend of rereading the classic tale of Arthur and Merlin. This is the version that the Disney used for it’s adaptation The Sword in the Stone. This is the classic childhood tale of Arthur, Merlin, and Guenever. It tells the story of the education of Arthur, known as Wart, by his mentor and teacher Merlyn, and includes the scene where Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and proves himself worthy of the kingship. This is a child’s book, but it is complex enough to engage and enthrall the adult reader.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, published in 1970, is the first book of her Arthurian Saga. This was followed by The Hollow Hills in 1973, The Last Enchantment in 1979, The Wicked Day in 1983, and The Prince and the Pilgrim in 1995. This series is told from the perspective of Merlin, or Myrddin Emrys. The first book deals primarily with Merlin’s childhood through young adulthood. Stewart’s saga starts out strong, but really loses steam after the third book. Until I started writing this post, I wasn’t actually aware that she had written a fifth book. For kindle owners, the four book series is available as a bundle for only 6.99. Mary Stewart was primarily a romance novelist, was a darned good writer, and these books are a great read, especially at that price.

Finally, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is a bit of a feminist classic, being told from the perspective of the women who are the supporting characters in a male-centered mythology, particularly Morgaine. I had to try to read this book a few times before becoming deeply immersed in the world. It is long, clocking in at 876 pages, and is a worthwhile read. Zimmer Bradley did extend this book into a series, but I haven’t read any of them, and they have gotten mixed reviews as near as I can tell.

There are some other, modern retellings that I will just mention in passing:

The Hollick and the Cornwell books are historical fiction, both setting Arthur in medieval England. I have read the first two of Hollick’s books, and they are not for the faint of heart – chock full of unadulterated historically accurate death, destruction and betrayal. The Cornwell book has been recommended to me, I have read other books by Cornwell and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I haven’t read this one. Of all of the retellings mentioned in this post, this is probably the most male-reader-friendly version, as it was recommended to me by a male friend. The Queen of Camelot by McKenzie is thoroughly enjoyable, well-written, and is suitable for older young adults. The Lost Years of Merlin is a middle-grade series by T.A. Barron, and is also quite fun.

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