Sunday, September 10, 2023

Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker


So you may have noticed I've been reading a ton of JANE EYRE retellings. Why? I don't know. I felt like it.

I'm coming to the conclusion that there are two ways of doing a Jane Eyre retelling: you either make it a romance or a thriller. Some authors don't want to choose, though, and they try to straddle both sides just like the original did. That doesn't always end well, but hey, props for trying. I'm rooting for you.

MR. ROCHESTER sort of tries to do both things. It's a lot of things. It's a coming of age story, it's an intimate character portrait of a flawed man, it's pseudo-literary, it's a romance (sort of), it's Jane Eyre...

...from Rochester's POV.

Some of the books I've been reading are character assassinations of Rochester. THE OTHER WIFE and READER, I MURDERED HIM are probably the worst portrayals of Edward (worst in terms of morality, not quality of the book). This book, even though I think it's meant to be humanistic, is also not very Edward-friendly. It made me feel bad for him more than it made me think, "God, he's hot." And I think part of the "God, he's hot" vibes come from the fact that in the original, he's this mysterious and enigmatic figure we only really see through Jane's eyes.


The problem with Edward (in this interpretation) is that he's a selfish, awkward, highly anxious man who is uptight but also passionate. He is a man of many contradictions, which makes him feel realistic in a way that makes him incredibly frustrating. We follow him as a young child with a distant father and an abusive brother to his unconventional boarding school, followed by an apprenticeship in a mill before ending up in Jamaica to run things for his father while his hated brother inherits Thornfield-Hall, the only thing Edward (at this point) loves.

His relationship to Bertha is interesting because in the beginning he treats her like a manic pixie dreamgirl, and being the pillar of strength that she's forced to lean on seems to invigorate him... as long as she's playing by his rules. But once her madness transcends the part where it allows her to be useful to him, he resents and then actively hates her. And by the way, this section definitely does have him being a slave-owner on his dad's sugar plantation, so Rochester, Slave Owner, whilst realistic, isn't exactly the stuff that dreams are made of (and TWs for that).

We then see his affair with the actress that ends up producing his ward and possible daughter, Adele, and the cycle continues anew with him falling in love with the actress... until she flouts convention and he catches her with another man laughing about how pathetic he is. There's a duel, Edward wins, and returns to his house where Bertha is now driving him insane. Enter Jane.

Btw, in this Jane Eyre retelling, Jane herself does not appear until 70%.

I actually thought the book slowed significantly in terms of pacing around this point. I loved the earlier sections of Edward's fucked up life, but the Jane segments just felt rather pale and lackluster in comparison to his two other relationships. Maybe that speaks to her stability; the other women he dated were both beautiful and flashy, but Jane herself is plain and stable. Something he thinks he could build a solid foundation on. I guess what killed the romance for me (apart from the slave-owning and the way he treated his "mad" wife), is that we've seen this dude enter and then spectacularly fail at two relationships, so it doesn't really feel like an HEA is in the cards. In this interpretation, I left the book feeling that Jane would do something that would end up making Rochester disenchanted with her, too.

As a character portrait, I think this is a brilliant one. The writing in this book is good and feels very old skool, like those big pulpy bodice-ripper sagas from the 70s that are so very near and dear to my heart. It's clear that the author did a lot of research and cross-referencing while working on this, and it really does feel like a passion project. I think this does for Rochester what WIDE SARGASSO SEA did for Bertha, in that it kind of provides unnecessary expose into characters who were intentionally created as nebulous figures in the original. Fleshing their characters out is like fun fan fiction for people who enjoy JANE EYRE (like myself) but aren't really necessary and kind of end up spoiling what the original intended if you're a purist. Which makes me sound like I didn't like it. I did. I'm just confused about what the purpose of this book is and who its intended audience is, because I think its ideal reader is someone who loves Jane Eyre but also won't die on the Jane Eyre Is Perfect As Is hill.

That's me. Possibly it's you, too.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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