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  • Monique Alice 5:35 pm on 2016/06/20 Permalink
    Tags: , , , retellings, , the bard revisited,   

    The Taming of the Shrew Gets a Modern Makeover in Vinegar Girl 

    Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is the latest in Hogarth’s series of Shakespearean classics retold by contemporary authors. With Vinegar Girl, Tyler (The Amateur Marriage) gives us her take on that classic tale of dating disagreeably, The Taming of the Shrew.

    In case it has been a while since you last cracked open the 10th-grade English mainstay, here’s a quick refresher: Renaissance-era Italian noblewoman intimidates area suitors with her intelligence, attractiveness, and impressive command of sarcasm. Younger sister is also attractive but decidedly less opinionated, ergo suitors are smitten. Father decrees older sister must marry before younger sister, as anything else would be unseemly. Younger sister’s suitors put heads and coin purses together to pay off a gentleman brave enough to woo (and hopefully marry) older sister; battle-of-the-sexes-style hilarity ensues.

    From 16th-century Padua, Tyler has updated the setting for Vinegar Girl to a modern-day Baltimore suburb. Kate Battista is a 29-year-old preschool assistant who lives at home with her father, Louis, and her 15-year-old sister, Bunny. Kate is no-nonsense, quick-witted, and beautiful, with interests that include gardening and calling things as she sees them. Louis Battista is a research scientist who is brilliant in his lab but hapless in his own home, relying on Kate to take care of the cooking, finances, and anything else that doesn’t involve correlations or genetic testing. Since the girls’ mother passed away when they were young, Kate also bears most of the responsibility for parenting Bunny. At 15, Bunny is many things Kate is not: approachable, earnest, and exceedingly popular with the boys. Most of Kate’s Bunny-related duties involve chasing would-be paramours away and enforcing curfew—while Bunny would just as soon see her take a long vacation.

    Kate’s in a place in life that will be familiar to anyone who didn’t have it all figured out before age 30. She likes her job…sort of. She doesn’t dislike living at home. Yet it’s clear she hasn’t really chosen to end up where she has, it just kind of…happened. She feels unfulfilled and left behind, as though everyone but her got a memo about what they were supposed to do with their lives. Kate is stagnant, doing the same tasks and following the same routine, day after endless day. So, naturally, something (or someone) has to enter the scene and shake things up.

    That someone is Pyotr Scherbakov, a handsome, good-humored research assistant in her father’s lab. At first, Kate can’t figure out why her father is suddenly tripping all over himself to push the two together, especially since she finds Pyotr somewhat boorish and patronizing (even if he can be a little charming sometimes). Then, the update: instead of it being her sister’s scheming suitors trying to push two lovers together, it’s Kate’s own dad, who’s trying to save Pyotr from deportation. All they need is for Kate to agree to a sham marriage. The only problem? Kate’s having none of it. What follows is a story about how two people with big personalities can bring out the worst and the best in one another.

    Although Vinegar Girl keeps the spirit and tone of the bard’s classic tale, Tyler has smartly reshaped it to be more egalitarian than the original. For one, Kate (happily never referred to as a shrew) is the actual focus of the novel—everything is told from her point of view. We feel her hurt at being treated like she’s invisible simply because she has her own mind and refuses to act the way society dictates she should. Conversely, we see through Kate’s eyes the way men struggle to live up to society’s expectations of rigid masculinity, even when they’re desperate to show their true emotions. Also, the sisterly relationship between Kate and Bunny gets a good deal more attention than that of The Taming of the Shrew’s Katherina and Bianca. The result is a loosening of the stereotyping of both, as seen through their and the reader’s eyes.

    With its combination of Shakespeare’s classic plot and Tyler’s easy, fluid style, audiences are treated to a lively, fun reimagining of a timeless tale. Vinegar Girl reminds us that, while most flies might prefer honey, some can’t seem to resist a little vinegar.

  • Sona Charaipotra 3:30 pm on 2016/04/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , retellings   

    Curtis Sittenfeld’s Austen Update Eligible Explores Modern Pride and Prejudices 

    And now for something completely different. Well, sort of. Fans of Curtis Sittenfeld have come to expect her deceptively lighthearted skewerings of American culture, from the boarding school drama of Prep, to the Washington elite in American Wife (with a heroine modeled on Laura Bush). Her latest should seem like a divergence—she takes on Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice in modern American retelling Eligible. And while she remains relatively faithful to Austen’s much respun plot (see also: Clueless, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Bollywood-ified Bride & Prejudice), Eligible stays true, too, to Sittenfeld’s signature subtly snarky take-down of tired American mores.

    In Eligible, our dear Lizzy Bennet, 38, is a New York City magazine writer—a freelancer suffering all that state’s presumed indignities while penning feminist-ish stories for the fictional Mascara magazine—who’s having a not-quite-affair with a sort-of married man named Jasper Wick (shades of Mr. Wickham). Her older sister Jane, a nearly 40-year-old yoga instructor making peace with modern spinsterhood, has just started experimenting with IVF treatments, in preparation for becoming a single mother.

    The pair return to their family’s crumbling Cincinnati, Ohio, Tudor house after their beleaguered, wisecracking father suffers a heart attack, and their opinionated, utterly marriage-obsessed mother is too busy chairing the next big charity shindig to look after him. There are three other Bennet girls still living at home who could manage the task—antisocial Mary, who locks herself in her room while working on her third online degree, and CrossFit-obsessed, unemployed millennials Kitty and Lydia—but none of them can be bothered.

    Finding themselves back home, Jane and Lizzie quickly become their mother’s next project, especially when she discovers that former reality TV bachelor Chip Bingley—a hot doctor, naturally—has landed a gig at their local ER. He brings with him a high-end “manager” sister and cranky neurosurgeon pal Fitzwilliam Darcy. Meanwhile, tech genius step-cousin Willie Collins pays a visit, and might just be a great catch for Lizzie—at least according to her mom. You see where this is all headed, of course.

    But let’s be clear: this ain’t your mama’s Austen. Sittenfeld’s version infuses the classic with modern-day pitfalls and pratfalls: Tinder hookups and sexting, online shopping addiction (Mrs. Bennet’s, of course), country club culture and big city snobbery, feminism and fertility. (At one point, step-cousin Willie says to our feisty heroine—after confessing an encounter with a prostitute, no less—“For someone like you, with your quality of genes, not to have kids would be a real waste.” Sigh.)

    Things come to a head when hate leads to hookups, and the charming Chip leaves Jane hanging. Meanwhile, the girls discover there’s a reason the Tudor is crumbling. Their parents are broke, and the lifestyle to which they’ve all become very accustomed will soon be obsolete if they don’t do something about it—and fast.

    Fast-paced, frothy, and fun, Sittenfeld’s story offers a strong commentary on the failings (including classism, racism, and homophobia) of the formerly upper-middle class in Middle America (without sparing the coasts, either). And while this Darcy might not have you swooning a la Colin Firth, Sittenfeld does pull off a charming modernization that can stand on its own stilettos.

    Eligible is on sale today.

  • Melissa Albert 8:54 pm on 2016/04/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , retellings   

    Eligible Author Curtis Sittenfeld Shares Her Top 10 Books for Pride and Prejudice Fans 

    While Jane Austen’s enduringly popular novel of love and manners has been retold time and again, through many different mediums, it’s rare that an author of Curtis Sittenfeld’s stature has taken a crack at reimagining Pride and Prejudice. And the results are utterly addictive. With Eligible, Sittenfeld transforms Lizzy and Jane into freelance journalist Liz Bennet and her yoga instructor big sister, two single women on the far side of 35 heading home to Cincinnati after their father’s recent health scare. There, they find their three younger sisters still living at home, the family manse falling apart, and their mother in denial (in between online shopping binges). Sticking around for a while becomes more interesting with the arrival of two hot doctors: Chip Bingley, who falls head over heels for Jane, and the rude, stuffy Fitzwilliam Darcy, with whom Liz forms a combative, thoroughly modern bond. In Sittenfeld’s hands, Bingley is a former reality star, Lydia and Kitty snotty CrossFit enthusiasts, and the indefatigable Mr. Collins a socially awkward tech billionaire. But the story, particularly its savvy heroine, maintains the spirit of its source material, while producing fresh pleasures of its own. Here’s author Sittenfeld on 10 more books every Pride and Prejudice fan must read.

    A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Alex Goodwin, and Tess Gammell
    If you’re anything like me, you had no idea how much the world needed a furry rodent reenactment of Lizzie and Darcy’s love story until one existed. These staged photos wink but don’t mock, and the (human) authors’ affection for their source material is obvious.

    The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman
    This whip-smart novel brings Austen’s level of anthropological insight to the romantic machinations of youngish contemporary New Yorkers.

    The Love Letter, by Cathleen Schine
    An anonymous love letter is delightfully disruptive to the owner of an indie bookstore, and to others in her small town, in this very romantic tale.

    Longbourn, by Jo Baker
    It turns out the goings-on of the Bennet family’s household look a little different when you’re their maid. This is an insightful and impeccably researched reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective (meaning it also contains some of the upstairs-downstairs flavor of Downton Abbey).

    The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
    The five Bennet sisters find their counterparts (sort of) in the five Lisbon sisters, who, true to the novel’s title, off themselves one by one in their suburban neighborhood. This is a strange, dreamy novel I suspect has inspired several of fiction’s first-person plural narrators since.

    Persuasion, by Jane Austen
    This was the final novel Austen wrote and happened to be the last of her novels I read. It’s bittersweet in tone and filled with classic Austen wisdom—and I was genuinely unsure of who’d find love with whom.

    Pride & Prejudice: A BabyLit Counting Primer, by Jennifer Adams
    This is a wonderfully illustrated counting book, with the items all Austen-inspired: four marriage proposals, etc., etc.

    Cozy Classics: Pride & Prejudice, by Jack & Holman Wang
    Can there be too many board books inspired by Pride and Prejudice? Surprisingly, no, at least if they’re this charming. Humblingly, the book distills all the drama and romance of Pride and Prejudice down to twelve words, and it actually does a really respectable job. I can only dream of being so concise.

    Stiltsville, by Susanna Daniel
    While taking place in a completely different time and place from Pride and Prejudice (late 20th-century Miami), I’d argue Daniel picks up where Austen left off, which is after the wedding vows have been exchanged. Stiltsville follows a marriage over many decades, from start to finish, and it’s incredibly wise, compassionate, and moving.

    Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin
    Okay, full disclosure: I’m only about 20 pages in, but it’s considered the definitive biography of Austen and it’s excellent and very detailed so far (let’s just say I’d never given thought to whether Austen’s mom breastfed her). I can’t wait to learn more about the writer who has brought so much joy to so many of us.

    Eligible hits shelves April 19, and is available for pre-order now.

  • Nicole Hill 9:15 pm on 2016/03/08 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , jane steele, lyndsay faye, , retellings   

    Jane Steele Is the Hard-Edged Jane Eyre You Never Knew You Wanted 

    Lyndsay Faye is a certifiable meddler in fiction. Her debut novel, Dust and Shadow, pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper in a masterful showdown between a fictional giant and an enigmatic true-life menace. The pairing seemed a more even match than even Moriarty could provide. In a world where Holmes pastiche is a cottage industry, Faye captured Doyle’s characters near-flawlessly, while setting before them a new challenge worth their respective salt.

    Now she’s back, focusing that same tender, exploratory devotion to Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork with Jane Steele. In Jane Eyre, poor, plain Jane gets hurtled from mistreatment to mistreatment, until finally she finds ethically questionable romance with Mr. Rochester. As readers, you can connect deeply with Jane on an emotional level, as she endures an endless parade of indignities and anguish. While she’s an incredibly strong woman—you’d have to be to withstand the secret in the attic—Jane is at the disadvantage of living in the 19th century and having little control over her own circumstances. As an orphan, and then as a governess, she’s got little means to rise above whatever misery befalls her.

    Not so much with young Jane Steele. Jane Steele gets things done, and she’s got the trail of bodies in her wake to prove it. Faye’s novel shares the basic elements of Brontë’s: a heroine orphaned at a young age, a sinister aunt, a demented boarding school for wayward young women, a new life as a governess, a secretive, erudite lordling pitching woo despite his shady past.

    It’s all there, because it all makes a great story. What makes the narrative unique is that Jane Steele knows this story. She’s not a stand-in for Jane Eyre; she’s her biggest fan. It’s a unique device, bestowing this meta awareness on Jane, and it adds a winking playfulness to the proceedings. Truthfully, it’s a quality any story about a serial-killing Jane Eyre groupie should have.

    Yes, Jane Steele has murdered, “for love and for better reasons,” and the story of Jane Eyre has inspired her to tell her own, deepest, ugliest secrets and all. Each chapter begins with a relevant passage from Brontë, serving as an anchor for Steele, who is buoyed by the similarities between herself and her fictional hero, yet dryly critical of how her predecessor handled her trials and tribulations.

    This Jane is a different bird. Though still sensitive and quietly altruistic, she’s also scrappy, droll, and endlessly industrious. Often, she’s a firecracker just waiting for a fuse to be lit. But she’s far from a manic menace; Jane Steele is plagued by the deeper consequences of her actions, by the perilous fragility of truth, by the weight of her own conscience.

    Thus, by the time Jane Steele meets Mr. Thornfield, the splendidly sarcastic army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars to inherit her childhood home, she’s more a match for him than Mr. Rochester’s Jane ever was. She and Thornfield both have skeletons—many literal—in their closets, and it puts them on a more even footing as they pursue a romance. Whereas Jane Eyre’s innocent, unyielding stoicism endeared her to Rochester, adrift in his own failings, it’s Jane Steele’s crackling chutzpah that catches the tormented Thornfield’s eye. He sees in her much of what he sees in the mirror: someone running from a past darkened by tragedy not entirely of their own making.

    The result of all of this is a Jane Eyre for our age, with a heroine who can wield both a knife and a well-placed insult. That her crimes are endearing instead of alienating is both a tribute to Faye’s deceptively charming style and to Jane’s sturdy yet pliant moral code. Who could begrudge a few casualties when you’re having this much fun?

    Jane Steele is on sale March 22, and available for pre-order now.

  • Maggie Ethridge 5:00 pm on 2015/11/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , jeanette winterson, , retellings, , the gap of time, the winter's tale, why be happy when you could be normal?   

    The Gap Of Time: Jeanette Winterson Takes On The Winter’s Tale 

    Taking on Shakespeare would make even the most talented writer pause, but you can’t feel the pause in Jeanette Winterson’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. Winterson’s masterful new novel plays to her gifts of mingling fairytale storytelling with stark realism, as seen in her past classics, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and The Passion.

    The Gap Of Time is the first in a series of modern retellings of Shakespeare’s works, planned in homage to the upcoming 400th anniversary of his death next year. Novelists including Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn, and Jo Nesbø are each re-crafting a favorite Shakespearean work, illuminating the themes that make it timeless: love, betrayal, loyalty, jealousy, and, of course, the passage of time.

    In The Winter’s Tale, the story shifts between King Leontes’ court in Sicilia and Bohemia. Jealousies arise between King Leontes and his queen, Hermione, related to the the visiting King Polixenses of Bohemia. After a dramatic trial at which the Oracle of Delphi declares the queen guiltless of an affair, the mistrustful King nevertheless banishes Hermione. Their older child, Mamillius, dies of grief, but the Queen’s newborn baby daughter, Perdita (meaning “the lost one” in Latin), is spared death by a Bohemian shepherd who raises her as his daughter.

    The story picks up again sixteen years after the Queen’s banishment, with Perdita grown. It has a happy ending, as well as perhaps the most famous stage direction of all time (“Exit, pursued by a bear”).

    Jeanette Winterson was adopted as a baby by a woman whose grandiose personality and religious fervor could have ruined a different child. She grew from the soil of a strange and intense childhood, and gave us not only her wonderful autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, but also a growing list of important contemporary novels. Of The Winter’s Tale, Winterson said, “It’s a play about a foundling. As I am.”

    Perhaps because Winterson’s own history is so unusual, she’s able to deftly combine the bizarre, the coincidental, the unrealistic, and the mundane into a coherent story. Her version draws the reader in immediately with a plot twist: a car crash, a dead man, a baby. It seizes our attention, and never lets go.

    An angry millionaire named Leo, convinced his best friend, Xeno, and his wife, Mimi, are having an affair, disputes that the daughter Mimi has given birth to is his own. One of the most satisfying aspects of this retelling is Winterson’s dark explanation of Leo’s maddened jealousy, but that’s best left for the reader to discover. He sends the baby across the Atlantic to a “BabyHatch,” where she’s rescued by Shep, who raises her. A bar owner and pianist, Shep is given new life in Winterson’s retelling, along with a backstory that makes him one of the book’s most appealing and moral characters.

    In keeping with the play’s fairytale aspects, there are magical saves and coincidences. In keeping with the modern setting of its retelling, the love triangle between the kings and the queen is overtly sexual, and more complex: in Winterson’s telling, the two men have been friends since youth, but they are also lovers.

    There are other clever modern updates: Autolycus is a wily car dealer. The Oracle is replaced by a DNA test. Even that famous stage direction gets its due, with a twist.

    Winterson’s sweeping prose is here pulled back to a more clipped style. But the language builds as the story goes on, growing ever more powerful right up to its satisfying conclusion.

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