“Belzhar” isn’t exactly a retelling of Plath’s most famous work, but it’s certainly a tribute. A troubled teenager, dealing with the death of her boyfriend, is sent to a therapeutic boarding school to recover—and a semester spent journaling and reading “The Bell Jar” creates a powerful and therapeutic experience for her and her fellow students.
Ana of California
Andi Teran rewrites the story of “Anne of Green Gables” from the perspective of a Latina teenager struggling through the Californian social service system. This Ana is every bit as feminist and strong as the original red-headed orphan, and a little more relatable to boot.
Boy, Snow, Bird
Helen Oyeyemi’s second novel “Boy, Snow, Bird” uses the classic Snow White conceit to explore issues of race in 1950s America. The wicked stepmother banishing her daughter for being too fair is seen in a whole new light here, and the “bad guy” isn’t quite so easy to spot—but vanity and envy still act as poison in her re-interpretation.
John Updike’s re-interpretation of “Tristan and Isolde” is set in Brazil and spans over two decades—beginning in the 1960s and ending in the 1980s. Like the original Medieval legend, Updike’s is also a tragic love story; a boy from a slum of Rio falls in love with a white girl from a privileged family and together they must flee into the far-reaching jungles in order to escape her family’s judgment.
A Thousand Acres
“A Thousand Acres” is Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-prize winning adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” set in the vast expanses of the American Midwest. A farmer decides to divide his 1,000-acre farm between his three daughters; when the youngest daughter, Caroline, objects, she sparks a series of events that bring a thick cloud of derision and rivalry over the farm and family, as everyone eventually reveals the true nature of their character.
“On Beauty” is more of an homage to E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” than a retelling; the main themes are there, along with several plot points (and even a few direct quotes)—but Smith’s wit, humor, and sharp dissection of ethnic and cultural dynamics make this a novel all her own.
Geraldine Brooks’ work of historical fiction imagines the beloved “Little Women” story from the perspective of the March girls’ father who leaves his family to join the Union army’s forces. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, March has his deepest beliefs challenged as he rediscovers his marriage from afar.
If you never got around to reading Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” don’t stress: Miéville’s parody-tribute “Railsea” will get you up to speed. This gloriously inventive fantasy novel replaces the eponymous whale from “Moby-Dick” with a giant mole—and it only gets stranger from there.
I’m always amazed at the wildly original plot lines authors still manage to invent. There seems to be no end to the creativity of our favorite authors. And yet, something every bit as magical can happen when a writer revisits a classic plot, and re-imagines it through new eyes. Suddenly, the characters spring back to life; old issues are given new meanings; the plot can feel refreshed by a new setting and time period—and the best part? A whole new generation can fall in love with a classic all over again.
Bookshelf curated by Emma Oulton.
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