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"Nick" and Other Retold Classics

February saw the release of the novel Nick by Michael F. Smith, which is the story of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway before the events of that novel. Smith wrote this book years ago but had to wait until 2021 to publish it once the copyright on Gatsby expired and its contents became part of the public domain.

Nick got me thinking about all the other retellings in modern literature. Greek tragedy, Shakespeare (whose plays themselves are retellings), and Jane Austen in particular are ripe for exploration because they deal with emotional universals that never go out of style. There are enough Austen retellings published in the last couple years alone for their own blog post, but I’ll limit this list to just one representation of each classic author.

Some of these are straight retellings of the events of a classic tale in a modern time period, others show events through the eyes of another character, and some take a character outside the context of the story of the original. But all of the below novels are inspired by tales that stand the test of time and speak to different parts of the human experience.

                        

  • Nick by Michael F. Smith (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald): Before Nick Carraway moved to West Egg and into Gatsby's periphery, he was in the trenches and tunnels of World War I. Floundering in the wake of the destruction he witnessed, Nick delays his return home, hoping to escape the questions he cannot answer about the horrors of war. He embarks on a redemptive transcontinental journey that takes him from a doomed, whirlwind romance in Paris to the debauchery and violence of New Orleans.

  • Hyde by Daniel Levine (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson): Mr. Hyde is hiding, trapped in Dr. Jekyll's surgical cabinet, counting the hours until capture. As four days pass, he has the chance, finally, to tell the story of his brief, marvelous life. We join Hyde, awakened after years of dormancy, in the mind he hesitantly shares with Jekyll. We spin with dizzy confusion as the potions take effect. We tromp through the dark streets of Victorian London. We watch Jekyll's high-class life at a remove, blurred by a membrane of consciousness. We feel the horror of lost time, the helplessness of knowing we are responsible for the actions of a body not entirely our own. Girls have gone missing. Someone has been killed. The evidence points to Mr. Hyde. Someone is framing him, terrorizing him with cryptic notes and whisper campaigns. Who can it be? Even if these crimes weren't of his choosing, can they have been by his hand?

  • On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Howards End by E.M. Forster): Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore. Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register.

  • I Am Heathcliff edited by Kate Mosse (Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte): 16 short stories by popular authors inspired by Cathy and Heathcliff’s love.  In `Terminus' a young woman hides in an empty Brighton hotel; in `Thicker Than Blood' a man sits in a hot tub stalking his newly-married love on social media; and in `A bird half-eaten' an amateur boxer prepares for a match. A woman recalls the `Heathcliffs I Have Known' and the physical danger she has borne at their hands; in `Anima' a child and a fox are unified in one startling moment of violence; and in `One Letter Different' two teenagers walk the moors and face up to their respective buried secrets. Curated by Kate Mosse and commissioned for Emily Bronte's bicentenary year in 2018, these fresh, modern stories pulse with the raw beauty and pain of love and are as timely as they are illuminating.

  • Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott): The March sisters--reliable Meg, independent Jo, stylish Amy, and shy Beth--have grown up to pursue their separate dreams. When Jo followed her ambitions to New York City, she never thought her career in journalism would come crashing down, leaving her struggling to stay afloat in a gig economy as a prep cook and secret food blogger. Meg appears to have the life she always planned--the handsome husband, the adorable toddlers, the house in a charming subdivision. But sometimes getting everything you've ever wanted isn't all it's cracked up to be. When their mother's illness forces the sisters home to North Carolina for the holidays, they'll rediscover what really matters. One thing's for sure--they'll need the strength of family and the power of sisterhood to remake their lives and reimagine their dreams. (The sequel, Beth & Amy, is coming in May.)

                        

  • The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley): The events of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein unfold from the perspective of Elizabeth Lavenza, who is adopted as a child by the Frankensteins as a companion for their volatile son Victor.

  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte): The “madwoman in the attic” is given a voice. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.

  • Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier): April 1951. It has been twenty years since the death of Rebecca, the hauntingly beautiful first wife of Maxim de Winter, and twenty years since Manderley, the de Winter family's estate, was destroyed by fire. But Rebecca's tale is just beginning. Colonel Julyan, an old family friend, receives an anonymous package concerning Rebecca. An inquisitive young scholar named Terence Gray appears and stirs up the quiet seaside hamlet with questions about the past and the close ties he soon forges with the Colonel and his eligible daughter, Ellie. Amid bitter gossip and murky intrigue, the trio begins a search for the real Rebecca and the truth behind her mysterious death.

  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Antigone by Sophocles): Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother's death, an invitation from a mentor in America has allowed her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can't stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who's disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half the globe away, Isma's worst fears are confirmed. Then Eamonn enters the sisters' lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to--or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz's salvation? Suddenly, two families' fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

  • Twist by Tom Grass (Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens): Eighteen-year-old Twist doesn't have much. No money, no home, and no family. All he has is his reputation as one of the most daring street artists in London. But when he finds himself on the run from the police, he knows that he could be about to lose the last thing he has left - his freedom. Until he is saved by the mysterious Dodge. When Dodge introduces him to con artist and art collector Cornelius Faginescu, Twist realizes that he finally has the chance to be part of something. All he has to do is put aside his moral objections and learn to steal.

                        

  • The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh (One Thousand and One Nights/The Arabian Nights): In this reimagining of The Arabian Nights, Shahrzad plans to avenge the death of her dearest friend by volunteering to marry the murderous boy-king of Khorasan but discovers not all is as it seems within the palace.

  • Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (Macbeth by William Shakespeare): Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town, the novel centers on a police force struggling to shed an incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for criminals. The drug trade is ruled by two drug lords, one of whom--a master of manipulation named Hecate--has connections with the highest in power and plans to use them to get his way. Hecate's plot hinges on steadily, insidiously manipulating Inspector Macbeth: the head of SWAT and a man already susceptible to violent and paranoid tendencies. (This is one of 7 books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, with other plays reimagined by Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and other bestselling authors. Take a look at the series titles here.)

  • All Stirred Up by Brianne Moore (Persuasion by Jane Austen): Susan Napier's family once lived on the success of the high-end restaurants founded by her late grandfather. But bad luck and worse management has brought the business to the edge of financial ruin. Now it's up to Susan to save the last remaining restaurant: Elliot's, the flagship in Edinburgh. Chris Baker, her grandfather's former protégé--and her ex-boyfriend--is also heading to the Scottish capital. After finding fame in New York as a chef and judge of a popular TV cooking competition, Chris is returning to his native Scotland to open his own restaurant. Susan and Chris are re-drawn into each other's orbit--and their simmering attraction inevitably boils over. But darkness looms as they find themselves in the crosshairs of a gossip blogger eager for a juicy story--and willing to do anything to get it.

  • Anna K. by Jenny Lee (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy): Told from multiple viewpoints, while seventeen-year-old Anna K seems above the typical problems of her Manhattan friends and siblings, finding love with a notorious playboy changes everything.

  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (The Iliad by Homer): Briseis was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army. She eventually finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks when Agamemnon demands her for himself. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis's people, but also of the ancient world at large...Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war--the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead--all of them erased by history. Fans of this book will also want to check out The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller if they haven't already done so.