Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Fiction: The Rest of the Story: Contemporary Fiction Based on Classic Novels

--by Rod & Hanje Richards

Ever read a classic novel and wonder what happened to the characters after the book was finished? Or picked up on an interesting character that the author put in a supporting role; someone who wanders into the story for a short time, captures your attention, and then disappears?

If so, you are not alone. Thankfully, other people wonder about these things, too, and some of these “wonder-ers” are authors themselves who have written books inspired by classic novels. They fill in details about events and/or characters that are only hinted at; they look at the story from a different point of view; they tell what happened before or what came after the story we know so well.
Here’s an opportunity to read (or re-read) a classic and also to explore a contemporary author’s version of “the rest of the story.”

Ahab’s Wife (Sarah Jeter Nasland) is about the wife of Ahab in Moby Dick by Herman Melville. A magnificent, vast, and enthralling saga, Ahab's Wife is a remarkable epic spanning a rich, eventful, and dramatic life. Inspired by a brief passage in Moby Dick, it is the story of Una, exiled as a child to live in a lighthouse, removed from the physical and emotional abuse of a religion-mad father. It is the romantic adventure of a young woman setting sail in a cabin boy's disguise to encounter darkness, wonder, and catastrophe; the story of a devoted wife who witnesses her husband's destruction by obsession and madness. Ultimately, it is the powerful and moving story of a woman's triumph over tragedy and loss through her courage, creativity, and intelligence.

Foreign Bodies (Cynthia Ozick) is a retelling of The Ambassadors by Henry James – but as a photographic negative. That is, the plot is the same, the meaning is reversed. At the core of the story is Bea Nightingale, a fiftyish divorced schoolteacher whose life has been on hold during the many years since her brief marriage. When her estranged, difficult brother asks her to leave New York for Paris to retrieve a nephew she barely knows, she becomes entangled in the lives of her brother’s family and even, after so long, her ex-husband. Every one of them is irrevocably changed by the events of just a few months in that fateful year.

Traveling from New York to Paris to Hollywood, aiding and abetting her nephew and niece while waging a war of letters with her brother, facing her ex-husband and finally shaking off his lingering sneers from decades past, Bea Nightingale is a newly liberated divorcee who inadvertently wreaks havoc on the very people she tries to help.

March (Geraldine Brooks) is about the father in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Early in Alcott's novel, the March girls receive a letter from their father. About this letter, Alcott writes, "little was said of the hardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered; it was a cheerful, hopeful letter full of lively descriptions." Mr. March spends much of Alcott's novel exiled from the story, serving as a chaplain for the Union during the Civil War.

Brooks' March reverses this, beginning with that same letter as it is written, or one very like it. But in this book, the stress falls on the cost of saying little about hardship, danger and homesickness. The effort of writing such a letter underscores one of Brooks's consistent themes -- that the distance between the man at war and the women at home is unbridgeable. Increasingly, the family must be protected from what the man has seen and done -- protected from who the man has become.

In one of his letters home, Mr. March chooses to focus on the natural world. "Spring here is not spring as we know it: the cool, wet promise of snowmelt and frozen ground yielding into mud. Here, a sudden heat falls out of the sky one day, and one breathes and moves as if deposited inside a kettle of soup." About another letter, he says simply that though he promised to write, "I never promised I would write the truth." Today, when the reading of the names of fallen soldiers has been censured as an unpatriotic act, Brooks' decision to show both the details of war and the silence that grows up around those details is timely.

Mary Reilly (Valerie Martin) is the story of Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde told through the eyes of his servant. A fresh twist on the classic Jekyll and Hyde story, this novel is told from the perspective of Mary Reilly, Dr. Jekyll's dutiful and intelligent housemaid.

Faithfully weaving in details from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic, Martin introduces an original and captivating character: Mary is a survivor–scarred but still strong -– familiar with evil, yet brimming with devotion and love. As a bond grows between Mary and her tortured employer, she is sent on errands to unsavory districts of London and entrusted with secrets she would rather not know. Unable to confront her hideous suspicions about Dr. Jekyll, Mary ultimately proves the lengths to which she'll go to protect him. Through her astute reflections, we hear the rest of the classic Jekyll and Hyde story, and this familiar tale is made more terrifying than we remember it, more complex than we imagined possible.

Mr. Dalloway: A Novella (Robin Lippencott) is inspired by Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolfe. It is June 29, 1927, Richard and Clarissa Dalloway's thirtieth anniversary and also a day of historical significance. Richard has arranged a surprise party for his wife. As he leaves their house in Westminster to buy flowers for the party, his thoughts turn to Robert Davies (Robbie), a young editor at Faber with whom he has been having an affair off and on for many years. Because of Richard's efforts to contain their relationship, Robbie has exposed their affair in a letter to Clarissa, who tells her husband that she "understands." And today Richard, despite his misgivings, finds himself on his way to Robbie's house –- only to be shaken by the discovery that Robbie is not there.

As does the Woolf novel, Mr. Dalloway takes place within a single day, unfolding prismatically with a simultaneity of events: Clarissa walks in London and remembers her courtship with Richard; their daughter Elizabeth searches for answers about her eccentric history tutor's somewhat mysterious and premature death; and a determined and drunken Robert Davies has decided to crash Richard's party, dressed all in white satin, no less! As the novella moves toward its surprising climax, it revisits several of Woolf's celebrated characters –- Sally Seton (now Lady Rosseter), Hugh Whitbread, Lady Bruton –- while introducing new ones, such as the couple Katherine Truelock and Eleanor Gibson and the strange and beautiful Sasha Richardson.
Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (Alexandra Ripley) takes us back to Tara and reintroduces us to the characters we remember so well: Rhett, Ashley, Mammy, Suellen, Aunt Pittypat, and, of course, Scarlett. As the classic story, first told over half a century ago, moves forward, the greatest love affair in all fiction is reignited; and, amidst heartbreak and joy, the endless, consuming passion between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler reaches its startling culmination.
The Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, contained in The Complete Novels) is based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and, in prequel, lets Jane’s predecessor, the first Mrs. Rochester, tell her story. The first Mrs. Rochester is Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, a white Creole heiress. Rhys follows her from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage and relocation to England. Caught in an oppressive patriarchal society in which she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans, Rhys' novel re-imagines Brontë's devilish madwoman in the attic. As with many post-colonial works, the novel deals largely with the themes of racial inequality and the harshness of displacement and assimilation.

The Wind Done Gone (Alice Randall) is based on Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett O’Hara’s half sister describes her life as a slave and, later, as a free woman. This novel tells some of what Gone with the Wind left untold about the racial underbelly of southern gentility. Cynara is Scarlett O'Hara's half-sister, the child of Captain O'Hara and Mammy, before she made herself sexually unavailable under her enormous weight. Cynara's diary of life as a mulatto at Tara and during Reconstruction reveals jealousy, resentment, hypocrisy, well-guarded family secrets, and personal redemption. She writes of her transformation from resentful slave to independent-minded woman, recalling especially her father's treachery as, unable to bear freeing her, he sells her away from her home to avoid her inevitable fate as bedmate to Scarlett's husband. Yet, through a twist of fate, Cynara ends up in a brothel frequented by Rhett Butler. In Randall's South, slaves aren't childish simpletons but clever manipulators with much more depth and texture of character than Mitchell allowed them in her portrayal of a South without racial brutality and miscegenation. Through Cynara, Randall speaks poignantly for those habitually forgotten or silenced in the history of the Old South.