New Year, New Whatever: Recent reads from Robin McKinley and April Lindner

Cover illustration for Sunshine by RobinMcKinleyOn the lighter side of the reading scale, I kicked off this month with cult hit Sunshine, from everybody’s favorite feminist fantasy author, Robin McKinley. I read (and adored) McKinley’s 80s classic The Blue Sword, as well as her slightly obsessive multiple re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty (1978) and Rose Daughter (1997) while still in high school, so I fully expected to love this book. Meh. It was okay. I’m going to try to sell it to Green Apple.

The story takes place in an alternative modern day America in which the various things that go bump in the night are all real, and the landscape has been ravaged by a recent inter-species war. The action begins when twenty-something baker and title character Sunshine is captured by vampires and offered up as a snack for a vampire prisoner, Constantine (no joke). Luckily her fellow prisoner refuses to eat her. When Sunshine’s latent magical abilities help her to escape, she decides to take Con with her as a sort of thanks-for-not-eating-me gesture. The two form a tight bond, and decide to face their captor together.

Cover illustration for Jane by April LindnerI’m a sucker (no pun) for modernizations of classic literature (“Cruel Intentions,” “Clueless,” how could you go wrong?), so I couldn’t quite resist this one. That, and this Jane goes to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence (woo!). It’s a fun read, and fully lives of up to the legacy of–well, new movies about old books, more or less.

Minus the Lowood school and TB, the plot is virtually identical to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, right down to the wife in the attic–sure, Mr. Rochester is a middle aged rock star and Jane has an neglectful mother rather than a hateful aunt, but same dif. Despite the parallel plot line, however, author April Linder has managed to strip the story of it’s pathos and urgency, leaving behind only a rather charming romance.

Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an enormously effective Gothic mystery and a compelling romance–but it’s also a novel about self-respect, strength of mind, character, faith, and (though its anachronistic to use the term) feminism. It’s that deeper, richer portion of the novel that gets lost in translation–along with a certain amount of the logic behind the story.

In this modernization the need for secrecy surrounding Mrs. Rochester’s mental illness is unconvincing, nor does it seem that she’s better off locked inside all the time, unable to see or interact with anyone but a drunk maid, than she would be at a high class institution. Likewise, Jane’s struggles in leaving Thornfield loose their significance, and River St. John’s offer lacks force.

Truthfully I’m not sure it’s possible to translate Jane Eyre into a modern-day American context. The stakes in the modern world just aren’t high enough. The major plot points cannot retain their original emotional significance in a culture without either a true aristocracy or a powerful homogeneous faith, where women have more equal rights and opportunities, where premarital sex and divorce are both common, and where insane asylums are no longer glorified prisons. The story might play better set in a society with more rules and a more formalized class structure, like India or Iran. To achieve the emotional effect of Jane Eyre in a modern-day American novel, you’d have to tell a very different story.

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