A Familiar Story

Gemma HardyLast month I read a book that told the story of a girl who was orphaned at a young age, sent to live with a cruel aunt and cousins, then passed off to a dismal boarding school, before graduating and finding a job as a live-in nanny for a mysterious older man on a remote estate. She helps tame her wild, young charge and falls in love with her much older employer, but their plans for marriage are thwarted by the revelation of a dark secret that sends her running away again. No, I didn’t read Jane Eyre, though I have read it a few times before. This book was The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, which retells the story of Jane Eyre and its themes of perseverance and self-reliance through the life of a young woman in Scotland during the 1950s and 1960s. I have read a number of books that pay homage to other books in various ways, some more successful than others. I enjoyed Gemma’s story and thought that it was mostly well-done—the writing was fluid and beautiful, the plot moved quickly and easily from incident to incident, and the relationship between the source material and this book were well-balanced.

That last point is where many similar books falter—I feel like I need to have enough of a familiar feel to be able say in my mind “oh yes, I remember this plot point, I wonder how it will be handled here?”, but without feeling like the new book is a betrayal of the original or trying so hard to retell a familiar story that it doesn’t make sense in an updated setting. This last one is the trickiest to pull off, I think. I’ve read more than one book where the author, either explicitly or implicitly, states that her favorite author is Jane Austen and that she loves a particular book. Then, as I’m reading her book, I realize that she is retelling a familiar novel—and then, unfortunately, the too slavish devotion to a pre-set plot sets in and characters do things that are completely inexplicable.

Using a familiar, and beloved, plot or characters is an easy way authors to connect with readers, pay homage to their own personal heroes, or just to have a little fun. There are a number of ways to recycle familiar stories—deciding to do so is a risky proposition because any book inspired by another will inevitably invite comparison to the original, and too often a re-write is found wanting.  Recently, author Joanna Trollope created controversy by rewriting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with most of the dialogue, characters, and plot in place, but details about clothing and setting modernized. I have not read it yet, but reviews have been fairly negative. On the other hand, books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Jane Slayre seemed to hit the zeitgeist at a particular moment that led to their (inexplicable to me) popularity.

Considering how hard it can be to pull off, when a book that is a homage to another really work well, the pleasure I find in reading it seems to be doubled. I can remember how much I love the source book and also enjoy a good read at the same time. When done well, a book that revisits familiar characters and a familiar plot can make me think even more deeply about the themes present in the original. One book that I think does this extremely well is The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason; it does help to love The Odyssey and to be fairly familiar with it, but even those whose only exposure to it was back in high school will still enjoy Mason’s creative prose and layering of stories together in an intricate maze of varying interpretations and re-interpretations. Last year I read The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which imagines the story of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence among a close-knit Jewish community in contemporary London. This book, like the one it was based on, left me pondering the roles of family, commitment, and forgiveness in our lives. I did miss Wharton’s prose and keen insight into the society of her time, but still enjoyed seeing how Segal read Wharton in her own milieu.

Stories based on older stories are not a modern phenomenon and are not likely to go away anytime soon. And, while sometimes I think I’ve had my fill of Jane Austen adaptations, I’m also not likely to stop reading them (or any other similar books) any time soon. Seeing old friends and familiar stories in new guises is just too much fun.

How do you feel about books that pay homage to previously published books? Do you have any particular adaptations that you have loved or hated?

About Jessie

(Blog Team) served a mission in Spain and graduated from BYU with bachelor's degrees in Spanish Translation and English, as well as a master's in Spanish Literature. She works full-time at a university library and full-time as a mother to her three children and their two cats. When she has free time she likes to eat and sleep.

2 thoughts on “A Familiar Story

  1. Although I didn’t wholeheartedly love it, the new book Longbourne by Jo Baker is an interesting twist on the homage novel by being the servants’ version–so they interact with the upstairs novel characters peripherally. I would love to see more of that done–more wizarding novels by JKRowling, for example, that have their own adventures and characters but take place in that same world.

  2. I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy last summer. I thought she did a good job of paying homage to Jane Eyre. It was interesting to see how she put the story in a more contemporary setting. The part where she lost me was in the romance between Gemma and her employer. It totally seemed to come of out nowhere and I didn’t get any of the chemistry or tension between those characters that exists in the original.

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