The “Glow of Warmth” From Twice-Told Tales
October 2018

Why are novels that recast plots from well-known classics—from mythology to Shakespeare to famous Victorian novels—so popular? Perhaps because of what social psychologists call the “mere-exposure effect” or the “familiarity principle.” Studies have shown that people feel the”glow of warmth” in the presence of something that is familiar.

Here are six novels for which I felt that “glow of warmth”—not only because they were familiar plots—but because they were excellent books on their own!

My favorite in this genre is Kamila Shamsie’s brand-new book, Home Fire, a stunning re-telling of the Antigone myth of mixed loyalties, set in a Muslim family in present day London, the U.S., and Pakistan.  The characters are subtle and complex, the writing beautiful.  The critics agree:  “Ingenious and love-struck . . . Builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I’ve read in a novel this century.” (New York Times).  “Shifting points of view allow Shamsie to explore the different relationships at stake, from family loyalties to sexual passion, and these intimate connections counterbalance her broader political point.” (Amazon Best Book review) Awarded the Women’s Prize for fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Another excellent retelling is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a modern version of King Lear, in which a wealthy father decides to divide his farm among three daughters.  The Washington Post called it “A family portrait that is also a near-epic investigation into the broad landscape, the thousand dark acres of the human heart. . . . The book has all the stark brutality of a Shakespearean tragedy.” “Powerful and poignant,” notes The New York Times.  Awarded thePulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, is vaguely based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.  It tells the story of three women: Virginia Woolf, beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway in 1923; Clarissa, planning a party for her beloved friend who is dying from AIDS in modern-day New York; and Laura, a 1949 Los Angeles housewife, feeling the constraints of a perfect family and home. By the end of the novel, these three stories intertwine in remarkable ways, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace. “Cunningham has created something original, a trio of richly interwoven tales. . . . his most mature and masterful work,” according to The Washington Post.  Awarded the PEN/Faulkner and Pulitzer prizes.

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell reworks the story of Hamlet from the point of view of an astonishing narrator: the Hamlet character is a baby in utero!  “With Nutshell, notes a New York Times reviewer, “Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick. . .  smart, funny and utterly captivating.” In the words of the San Francisco Chronicle,“Fantastically entertaining and frequently hilarious.”

Another refashioning of Shakespearean that I enjoyed is Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (one of many in the Hogarth Shakespeare series).  How, I wondered, could anybody possibly relate the decidedly anti-feminist plot into the modern day? Well, Tyler managed brilliantly, as NPR notes, taming “the Bard’s shrewish battle of the sexes into a far more politically correct screwball comedy of manners that actually channels Jane Austen more than Shakespeare.” Or, in the words of TheWashington Post, an “ingenious resetting . . . with considerably more humor and gentleness than in the Bard’s version.”

 Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, echoes Pride and Prejudice with the additions of lots of sex, homosexual and transgendered characters, and reality TV.  Although not in the same league as the other books listed here, I was impressed with her clever twists—such as, Bingley and Darcy as Ivy League educated doctors; the Bennet house falling apart rather than being entailed; “Willie” Collins as a boring techie; and Pemberley being located in Atherton.

Not all retellings are successful, of course.  I would advise you to steer clear of what I consider three failures:  (1) Laurie Horowitz’s The Family Fortune, vaguely based on Persuasion by Jane Austenstupid chick lit about “Trust Fundy” in Boston; (2) Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, reminiscent of The Tempest: one funny section when  bunch of prisoners swear in Shakespearean language, but an ultra-stupid plot; and (3) The Innocents by Francesca Segal, an unsuccessful recasting of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, set in an upper-class Jewish enclave, with unconvincing characters, unconvincing dialog, and none of the  tortured ambivalence that permeates the Wharton book.

What are some of your favorite re-tellings?  Let me know and I’ll share them in next month’s posting.  And remember, you can always check out the catalog of my All-Time Favorites at Delightful Reads.