Time and place: 13th century Asia
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence: “Once upon a time, there lived a king whose heart was heavy.”
Verdict: Four stars out of five.
His wife’s betrayal has turned King1 Shahryar’s heart to stone. Afraid that history will repeat itself, he concocts a plan: on every full moon he will marry a young woman, and the next morning she will be put to death. His decision, of course, was not well received — people ran away with their families, or hid their daughters well. But Shahrazad, the blind daughter of the king’s vizier, thinks that this is the very moment she was born for: her duty is to revive the king’s heart and thus save her people. Despite her father’s entreaties she marries the king, and then on their wedding night she starts telling him a story…
… a story that she does not finish when the morning comes. The king, happy for the reprieve, promises her that she will not be put to death until her story ends. And the story goes on and on and on, for many days.
The king’s people however were less happy with the situation than they should have been. Rumors start circling around, that Shahrazad is actually a witch, and she is still alive because she has enchanted the king. The rumors are planted by the five brothers of the previous queen, who want revenge2. Their army is small and they cannot defeat the king in fair fight, so they send the youngest to the court, disguised as a kitchen boy, to gather info and discover the best moment for a surprise attack.
I have seen that a few reviews criticize the writing style for various reasons; in my case the writing was one of my favorite things. I loved the poetry of it all, with stone hearts, and hearts overflowing with feeling, and everything in between. I loved the idea of having Shahrazad be a cloth reader, who didn’t know the stories beforehand but found them hidden in bolts of cloth. And I loved the very idea of a retelling of the story of the thousand and one nights.
I don’t remember how the original Sheherezad found herself in her unenviable position (whether it was by choice or by design), but I liked very much that the Shahrazad in this story has taken matters into her own hands. Not only she is the one who decides she will take the risk, but she does so before the king has had a chance to put his threat into action (and in doing do she has rescued him from the consequences of his decision). This Shahrazad is the quiet, confident type, intelligent and with a courage I admired more than once. She is no damsel in distress — quite the opposite, she faces danger to rescue her prince.
Shahryar himself is by no means evil, he’s just a powerful man with trust issues and with his heart closed off. I wonder whether he could have gone through with his plan, putting a random girl to death if he found himself in the position to. The author has done a good job in explaining his inner conflict all the steps of the way. As a consequence, the king is never an unsympathetic character, he just feels terribly misguided at times, and I for one have read the book in a single day, so curious I was to see how he will get to know and accept what his heart wants once again.
Another thing I liked is how the relationship between Shahryar and Shahrazad was built little by little. Ever since he was a child Shahryar has been intrigued by little Shahrazad, and now, seeing her for the first time as a woman, the last thing he wants to do is put her to death. He is torn between his initial decision and this reluctance he finds surprising (for hasn’t he already decided on a course? And he’s a king, his will must be steady!), yet still his heart is closed off and unfeeling. Actually, that wasn’t it: his heart was not dead, quite the opposite, but Shahryar, just like the king in Shahrazad’s story, was simply refusing to see what was in front of him.
And the same goes for Shahrazad, in a way, although she is smart enough to realize it sooner: she too falls in love with the king and does not initially realize it. Since it’s a short book, however, this trope is not prolonged for too many pages — another thing that I couldn’t but like.
What I liked most
The prologue, written in the words of a Shahrazad enticing the reader in, to listen to her story :)
Two of my favorite quotes:
“A story is alive, as you and I are. It is rounded by muscle and sinew. Rushed with blood. Layered with skin, both rough and smooth. At its core lies soft marrow of hard, white bone. A story beats with the heart of every person who has ever strained ears to listen. On the breath of the storyteller, it soars. Until its images and deeds become so real you can see them in the air, shimmering like oases on the horizon line.”
“I wished to be the one to truly see, to come to know your heart. At least, I wished to try.”
At her words, Shahrayar felt his stone heart give a crack, and the pain surged forth into his veins, scalding as lava. Too late. Your wish has come too late, he thought.
I so love the imagery in this last one :)
What I liked least
The ending. It had the potential to be great, but then something happened that it seemed to me broke the previously established rules, and I did not enjoy that a bit.
Thoughts on the title
While the title has a poetic ring to it, I don’t think it’s a particularly good fit. Shahrazad’s mother was indeed a storyteller, one of the best in her tribe. But Shahrazad herself was foretold to be the greatest storyteller ever, so she went far beyond being simply her mother’s daughter. “The Storyteller” would have perhaps been a better title, methinks.
Thoughts on the ending
The ending is the reason why I did not give it 5 stars.
Recommend it to?
People who enjoy fairytale retellings :)
- he is referred to in the book as being a king, but I would expect him to actually have been a shah. [↩]
- …with a rather interesting motivation: first they were angry at their sister, who brought shame on the family, and then after a while they started thinking that it was all Shahryar’s fault for giving her too much freedom. [↩]
- speaking of which, I loved the idea that everyone found the exact piece of cloth they needed, with a story addressed just for them. [↩]
|Publication year: 2011
Time and place: Civil War era US
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence: “There’s no such thing as a perfect book,” Mr. Ochocinco says.
|Publication year: 2012
Genre: Young Adult
Time and place: 2012 US/the pages of Jane Eyre
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence: “There was no possibility of taking a swim that day.”
Verdict: Hated it with a passion.
Emma’s life is going less than well. She and her step mother have nothing in common, the rich girls at the boarding school where she has a scholarship treat her bad, she has a crush on not one, but two unavailable guys…
A lighting strike relieves her of all her cares though, as she finds herself transported right between the pages of the book she was currently reading, Jane Eyre. Mrs. Fairfax and Adele think Emma is Jane, and after a while she herself starts believing it and even falls in love with Mr. Rochester. Her real life is calling, however, and…
Jane Eyre is my favorite book. I love the language, I love the story, and most of all I love the characters. Which is why this book annoyed me so: it managed to get both Jane and Edward wrong, painting the latter in such a bad light it left me shaking my head in disbelief. The least thing I expect from a ‘reteller’ is to be acquainted with the original story; this one certainly wasn’t.
Dear author, in case you ever read this,
Rochester had married Bertha because he was young, and she was beautiful, and he thought himself in love. Yes, his father had arranged this marriage because the bride was rich, but Edward was not told about the money part. After the wedding she has shown her true colors (“a nature the most gross, impure, depraved“) and life with her was hell; Edward even thought of a divorce, but he couldn’t since by this time the doctors (yes, author, he did consult doctors) have discovered that she was turning mad. Mad as her mother and her younger brother — because you see, author, madness ran in her family. Little by little the fact that he was now hopelessly tied to a lunatic drove Rochester to despair; he even wanted to kill himself. Only the idea of shutting her up in the attic (well cared for, as he couldn’t bring himself to harm her in the littlest way), while he could pose as an unattached man saved his life. And it is only at this stage (with her already mad for quite a while) that she brought her to Thornfield — there is no plausible way to think that the imprisonment was the cause of her insanity. Edward is not a perfect man, far from it, but he is not the monster that you make him seem.
As for Jane, you seem to think that she left Edward because she could not forgive him for what he’s done. But she loves him and she understands him, and I see her above such petty things as being unable to forgive. She loves him dearly and she fears that he will harm himself after she’s gone — and yet she does go, because she cannot abide to live with him and not be his bride. Such were the morals of the age, such were her principles, and she preferred tearing her heart out to breaking them (“I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?“). This choice that Jane has made is one of the reasons I respect her the most, and you, author, have torn it away from her without a thought.
You know, I think this book would have been many times better if there had been no connection with Jane Eyre. Standing on its own it might have been a cute story (perhaps with a few hidden parallels, like Gray trying to make Emma jealous, or her being able to feel when he was in danger, or whatever). As it is, there are quite a few problems with it that did not let me properly enjoy it even in the few moments when I could get over the part where Rochester was turned into a monster. Not to mention that I didn’t very well get what was the purpose of Emma’s foray into the pages of Jane Eyre: show spoiler
- Emma must be both quite unlucky and indestructible, as she is very near to dying no less than four times in the course of a few months. And after each of these adventures she ends up good as new in the space of a few weeks;
- She was also sort of too silly for my taste (I lost all the respect I had for her when she at one time says about her teacher, “How dare he condescend to me just because he was older and had seen more of the world?“, when the guy was giving her some advice — I get that she is supposed to be a teenager, and that is the way most teens think, but I really cannot admire a silly child);
- I think it’s very, very hard to do Jane Eyre justice in a YA book. The original is a piece of beautiful literature, and simplifying it means letting go of the very things that made it special. This book is no exception, it felt at times like a child’s attempt to make a copy of Gioconda.
- The most important challenge for the author I thought was the fact that Emma had to both know about the book and still be in the dark about what is to happen. At first this was quite well approached, as when Emma enters the book she has only read a part of it, not all (she has read long enough to know how things end up between her and Rochester, but no more). As Emma loses touch with her own reality and her non-Jane life, this could still have worked. She falls in love with R., she is heart broken when she sees Blanche, that sort of thing. Up to now, it all was believable enough. But then Emma goes back to her life and manages to finish the book. Not only that but when she returns between the pages she now has her full memories — when R. asks her where she has been she remembers that in the book Jane has been away to visit her sick aunt. A mere moment after that she gets upset that R. still plans to marry Blanche — so she remembered a tiny detail of the book but didn’t remember that a central theme is R.’s love for Jane and no other?
- Another challenge I think was the part where Gray — Emma’s love interest — had to have a terrifying secret of his own, to mirror Rochester’s. As in the previous case, I thought the author was very close to finding just the thing, but unfortunately she didn’t; I thought her choice was veering a bit towards the ridiculous as I couldn’t help thinking that no one in their right mind could actually blame Gray for what happened, and as such the secret lacked the strength it needed to make it count.
- in the sequel Emma will get into the pages of The Scarlett Letter, and I am almost considering picking it up because, while I absolutely love Jane Eyre and was personally offended by the changes made to it, about Scarlet Letter I could not care less. Sadly, the third book will have Emma into The Phantom of the Opera, which is also one of the books I love.
Thoughts on the title
Loved it + it’s the reason I picked up the book.
Thoughts on the ending
Happy ending, yay. Although considering I didn’t care too much about Emma it was no big deal.
Also, in my opinion the whole bit about the feminist essay about Bertha would not have been missed at all if it weren’t there.
Recommend it to?
YA lovers who wouldn’t mind having Jane Eyre butchered in front of their eyes.
The story of Jane Eyre brought in a contemporary setting :)
Jane Moore is nineteen when she has to drop out of college and find a job, as her parents have recently died and her older siblings are uninterested in her whereabouts. She ends up as the live-in nanny of Maddie, the daughter of an once famous rock star who’s planning a comeback. Her employer seems quite rough at first, but he is friendly, and, in time, a relationship develops between the two of them. In the light of his future word tour he even asks Jane to marry him, and she accepts. But…
First of all, kudos to the author for managing to bring the events from the 19th century world of Jane Eyre to present day US, in a believable manner. There are some elements that the author let go of, such as Jane’s inheriting a fortune, or her being related to the family that takes her in after she runs away, but I am glad she did so, as they would have made the book feel contrived. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint the reason why (fewer pages perhaps? a simplified language?), but this book, while interesting enough, felt like it lacked some of the depth the original had. However, this isn’t to say I did not enjoy it :)
Although she’s only nineteen, Jane takes everything very seriously. The book starts a little before she gets the job as the nanny of Mr. Rathburn’s child, so her formative years are mostly skipped (we are treated now and then to her memories of her family, mostly her mother, and how little affection she’s had as she grew up). I liked this Jane, the way she always thought of Maddie’s well being (I don’t remember Jane Eyre being that devoted to her charge, although she may have been and I may have forgotten it). Most of all I liked the way she always told the truth, and the way she tried to avoid saying bad things of people if she could avoid it.
Nico however got the short end of the stick: he’s supposed to be this reserved character, who does not talk all that much, which makes him hard to get to know. Sure, Rochester is the same way in principle, but the flowery language of the era had him passionately expressing himself quite a bit. His contemporary equivalent had no such luck => he ends up with a number of lines that I felt were not enough for me, as a reader, to actually grow to care for/about him. And then there is this other problem: in the beginning he goes out of his way to spend time with Jane, and it seemed to me a bit contrived; I can buy them falling in love after they got to know each other, but a rock star deigning to notice one of ‘the help’, as someone in his entourage puts it, and then ignore his own busy schedule to spend time with her did strike me as a bit odd (it was not so in Jane Eyre, where Mr. Rochester had only a handful of people around the house, all of them servants, so it wasn’t that much of a wonder he took an interest in the one newcomer; however Mr. Rathburn’s house is teeming with people, making any particular one of them that less likely to stand out).
The thing about the characters (less so with Jane, more so with Nico) is that while the author has done a great job with adapting the major scenes and dialogue of Jane Eyre to modern times, the parts that are her own contribution seemed to me less good. Starting with Jane’s family, who are so uni-dimensional they seem more like cardboard props than anything else, each of them having a single trait and that’s that (sister = self-involved, brother = aggressive, mother = uncaring). The rest of the newly introduced cast is less cardboardy, but not by much; the scenes, while not particularly bad, do not stand out in any way, they never made me feel things; which is quite a pity since, again, I was happy to see how ingeniously adapted the Jane Eyre parts were.
For example, I thought the motivations Nico had for his choices were surprisingly believable and rather well done:
As usual, I am fond of the small details :)
While the author has changed some of the names completely (no Edward Rochester, *sigh*), she did keep or subtly altered some of the others. “Adele”‘s mother is named Celine, the brother of the “madwoman in the attic” is also named Mason. Thornfield, which I always envisioned as a gray, gloomy estate, is now Thornfield Park, a place surrounded with greens and giving off a completely different vibe. The dog, named Pilot in the original, is now named Copilot :) Diana and Mary have almost the same first names, with a different last name; St. John Rivers is now River St. John :) Last but not least, Blanche Ingram turned into a Bianca Ingram (which is fun, given that both Blanche and Bianca mean ‘white’, in French and Italian, respectively).
My reaction on the names the author has created ‘from scratch’ is a less happy one. I hated having someone named Bibi with all my might. And Nico… it’s true that ‘Edward’ is one of my favorite names, so it would have been hard to find one to match it, but still, Nico does not sound imposing enough (plus it’s sort of obvious it’s not his real name, and as such it sounds fake, on top of it all). Alas, I admit that these are my personal pet peeves (as it happens, in my country Nico is a girl’s name and Bibi is sort of a joke name for a boy), but they did detract from my enjoyment nonetheless.
Thoughts on the title
Love its simplicity :)
Thoughts on the ending
While in the first moment I was in two minds about the injury the author gave Nico, after I finished reading I ended up admitting it was the best choice.
Recommend it to?
Anyone who is curious about how Jane Eyre would sound like in contemporary times. I would say this is the best Jane Eyre retelling I’ve ever read, but so far this is the only such book that has crossed my path. I’m sure however that this is one of the best adaptations out there :)