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Friday, November 12, 2010

Jane Eyre Retelling Needs A Little Bronte-ish Charm

(Image from Indiebound)

What is it about classic novels that make them, well, classic? For me, it's about timelessness - an appealing story peopled with rich, complex characters endures beyond wherever or whenever it takes place. Jane Eyre certainly fits the bill. So, why doesn't it have the same appeal when re-told with a contemporary cast moving in a modern setting? Is it the story itself that doesn't translate or does the tale simply lose its charm when not told in Charlotte Bronte's words? I'm guessing it's the latter because, while Jane by April Lindner stays very true to the original story, it doesn't enchant the way the classic does. But I guess that's another part of the definition: no matter how often it is imitated, a classic can never be equaled or surpassed.

Lindner's version features 19-year-old Jane Moore, a freshman who's been forced to drop out of Sarah Lawrence following the sudden death of her parents. In order to return to college, she'll have to save a significant amount of money, hence her appearance at Discriminating Nannies, Inc. Although Jane feels dowdy and unsophisticated next to the other applicants, it's her plainness that lands her a coveted position in the home of rock star Nico Rathburn. Not one for celebrity gossip, Jane knows little about the legendary musician, although a Google search turns up a dubious history that includes drug use, failed relationships, and a host of other bad-boy tendencies. Despite her misgivings, Jane takes the well-paying job.

It doesn't take Jane long to settle into Thornfield Park, Mr. Rathburn's luxurious country estate. Her boss is away; his staff is friendly; her charge is sweet, if precocious; and the girl's preschool/nap schedule affords plenty of time for Jane to pursue her painting. There's only one thing that bugs her: She hears strange noises at night. Loud bumps and maniacal laughter drift down from the third floor, a part of the house Jane has been forbidden to explore. Although the others blame it on an eccentric housekeeper, Jane can't help but wonder why a man like Nico Rathburn would tolerate such strange behavior from an employee. It's only when Jane actually meets her boss that she realizes he has his own peculiarities, one of which is his seeming fascination with her. What can Nico Rathburn, a celebrity who is constantly surrounded by glitz and glamour, possibly see in a nobody like Jane?

The more time Jane spends at Thornfield, the more attached she grows not only to the estate itself, but to little Maddy and her confounding father. Nico seems attracted to her as well, so why is he dating a flawless blonde? And what isn't he telling her about his mysterious third floor occupant? When all is revealed one wonderful, terrible day, Jane will have to make an impossible choice - stay at Thornfield, the only place that's ever felt like home, or leave behind the only happiness she's ever known?

If you've read Jane Eyre, you won't find any surprises in Jane. Like I said, it stays quite true to the classic story. The modern setting, however, renders it a little ... creepy. Mr. Rochester becomes a rash and selfish cradle-robber, Jane's dull and irritatingly naive, and what is so deeply romantic in the classic book seems forced in the modern version. In the original tale, the age difference between the main characters doesn't bother me - in the 21st Century, it does. If the world-wise Nico really loves young, sheltered Jane, wouldn't he insist that she complete school, date around, and sow her wild oats instead of pressuring her into marrying him? I would think so. Predictability also becomes a problem in a retelling like this - I, for one, wouldn't have minded a clever twist or two. Overall, I have to say that Lindner writes well, her prose just lacks the Bronte magic that makes Jane Eyre so irresistibly charming. I think making the story more her own would have made it much, much more appealing.

(Readalikes: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Jane from the generous folks at Hachette Book Group. Thank you!


  1. I completely agree with you on all counts. This just is NOT a stellar retelling.

  2. It's a pretty cover, and very Jane Eyre-ish, but personally I don't see the point of retellings (usually. There are exceptions.) After all, if a book's timeless, it doesn't NEED to be moved to a different time, surely?


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