Saturday, November 5, 2016

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre by Tracy Chevalier

Like most of the people picking up this title, Jane Eyre is one of my favorite classic works of literature. It seems a bit coincidental, until you really take the time to think about it. What bookish girl or boy wouldn't want to read a story about an intelligent, plain, and stubborn heroine who ends up getting her own grand, epic love story (even if it is a bit of a downer)? Jane is the Everygeek.

READER, I MARRIED HIM is an anthology of stories from many different authors, some of them big name, all claiming to be "inspired by" JANE EYRE. Oh, and the editor? Tracy Chevalier? Yeah, she wrote a book too, one you may have heard of. A little thing called GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Good stuff.

Well, no, not really. READER, I MARRIED HIM is actually a huge disappointment. You'll probably notice that the average rating is pretty low (3.26/5 as of the time of my writing this). That didn't really scare me away because it's pretty common for retellings and reimaginings to be slammed by the purists. We don't like it when people mess with our favorite works of fiction. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be the rallying cry there.

The problem here isn't that the authors looked at the story in an unwelcome or uninspired way. It's that many of the stories here have nothing to do with JANE EYRE at all.

The first two stories, My Mother's Wedding by Tessa Hadley and Luxury Hour by Sarah Hallare nebulous and blend into each other because the narrative style is so similar. I barely remember what happened in them, only that they had nothing to do with Jane Eyre.

Grace Pool Her Testimony (I itch to put a comma in there, seriously) by Helen Dunmore was the first story that I liked. It's a reimagining of JANE EYRE from the point of view of the servant, Grace Poole, who sees Jane as an interloper. It doesn't portray Jane or Rochester in the best light, but it keeps to the gothic theme of the original.

Dangerous Dog by Kirsty Gunn is about a jogger/lit student who saves a pitbull from being abused by talking about JANE EYRE to some wannabe-thugs. She uses the red room that Jane's aunt put her in after her uncle had died to relate to them. It was cheesy, and only tangentially related to the original story, but it's hard to be mad at a story where the heroine nips animal cruelty in the bud.

To Hold by Joanna Briscoe is a story about a woman who keeps putting off the marriage proposals of a local lord, instead marrying other men whom she cares nothing about while having clandestine relationships with a woman. I felt like it was trying too hard to be edgy & didn't have anything to do with the original story of JANE EYRE, so I didn't really care for this one much at all.

It's a Man's Life, Ladies by Jane Gardam is about a woman and her grandmother, who reminisces a bit on her late husband. Also didn't really have anything to do with JANE EYRE.

Not Since First I Saw Your Face by Emma Donoghue was a story that I got excited about, because Donoghue's been all over the place and her last two novels were very highly spoken of by critics and readers alike. This story is apparently about two real-life historical figures - Mary "Minnie" Sidgwick Benson and Ellen/Elizabeth Hall - and the clandestine affair they had while Minnie was recuperating in Wiesbaden. It wasn't a bad story, but it had nothing to do with Jane Eyre, except for the fact that the man Minnie was married to was named Edward. That's a tenuous connection, at best. I also think it would have been more effective if it hadn't been so close to another very similar story, To Hold.

Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill was another story I was excited to read because Susan Hill is a well known gothic/horror writer (author of THE WOMAN IN BLACK). If anyone could stay in keeping to the gothic feel of JANE EYRE, I thought surely it would be she. Nope. Instead, she presents us with this story about a woman's doomed relationship with a king. It wasn't King Edward, either, which I feel was a lost opportunity.

The Mirror by Francine Prose was easily one of my favorites in this collection, probably because it was more in keeping with what I expected. It's an unsettling epilogue to JANE EYRE, in which history repeats itself and Jane wonders if she is going as mad as his first wife. I've read Prose's other work and really like her style, and she adapted it well to this macabre retelling.

A Migrating Bird by Elif Shafak is about a relationship between a Turkish Muslim girl with strict parents and a Dutch exchange student. This one was really well written but also sad. Once more, there's no connection to JANE EYRE.

Behind the Mountain by Evie Wyld is totally bizarre. It's about this woman who is fascinated by this other woman who has been scalped by a bear. Stop laughing, I'm being completely serious.

The China from Buenos Aires Park by Patricia Park is about this Argentinian woman of Korean ancestry. She feels out of place in Argentina, because she doesn't look like everyone else. She feels out of place with Koreans, because she doesn't speak Korean. When she comes to the U.S. she feels out of place there, too, because she doesn't speak English. Then she gets in a sort-of relationship with this guy whose ethnic background is similar to hers, but it all gets blown up in the air when she is forced to honor her duty to her family. I can sort of understand the connection here (duty vs. love) but I felt emotionally distanced from the story because it felt so rushed.

Reader, She Married Me by Salley Vickers was another of the few stories with a direct JANE EYRE connection. This short story is narrated by Rochester (and actually uses the flowery Victorian dialogue fairly well). I feel like this work was very much influenced by Jean Rhys's WIDE SARGASSO SEA.

Dorset Gap by Tracy Chevalier was another one of the "okays". It's a story about a pretentious girl (I honestly wanted to slap her) and the doofy boy who is in love with her. They sign a book in a sort of makeshift time capsule with two quotes from JANE EYRE.

Party Girl by Nadifa Mohamed was a really interesting story about a Muslim girl's coming of age. Which is great, because we need more diversity in fiction, but it wasn't really Eyre-related.

I'm getting a little bored, so I'm just going to sum up the last stories quickly. In Transference by Esther Freud, woman sort-of-maybe falls in love with therapist while also seeking to better her relationship with her husband. The Mash Up by Linda Grant is about a Jewish/Persian wedding that ends badly. The Self-Seeding Sycamore by Lionel Shriver was super cute. I think it's my favorite in this collection: a modern day retelling of JANE EYRE between an army medic and a widow. The Orphan Exchange by Audrey Niffenegger was also decent, about a lesbian love story between two European orphans and how they overcome a terrible tragedy. Don't ask me to describe Double Men by Namwali Serpell and Robin Crusoe at the Waterpark by Elizabeth McCracken because I'm still not sure what was happening in those stories. Only that they weren't JANE EYRE-related.

I know I've said it 100 times over the course of this review, but if you're going to have an anthology of stories "inspired by" JANE EYRE, then they should be inspired by JANE EYRE - and in such a way that the audience can actually make the connection themselves, so they don't feel cheated like I did. Granted, it's been a while since I've read my beloved JANE, so I'm willing to concede that some of the allusions may have been so subtle that I missed them once or twice. But since this happened with every other story in this anthology, I'm fairly sure that the fault did not lie just with me.

There are some great stories in here, but they can't carry the entire collection. It's unreasonable to expect them to.

2 out of 5 stars.

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