The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Last summer I discovered author Ruth Ware whose debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood made quite an impact in crime fiction in a year that had been mainly dominated by the success of The Girl on the Train. Back then I knew Ware was writing her second novel, to be published by Harvill Secker in 2016. Imagine my surprise when I was one of the lucky bloggers to get an advanced review copy of The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware’s second novel out on the 30th June 2016.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Cover of my ARC for Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10

The Woman in Cabin 10 follows In a Dark, Dark Wood‘s focus on a young, white woman who tells the story in the first person. Laura “Lo” Blacklock is a young travel journalist living in London who finds a stranger ransacking her flat late one night. Even though the intruder does not cause her any physical harm on purpose, she had drunk a lot that night and she finds herself unable to draw a clear line between fact and fiction, or so she thinks. A few days later she is supposed to board the Aurora Borealis, a super luxurious cruise for the 1%, and write a report, do some networking and fight for a promotion. As the cruise set sails from Hull to Norway and Lo realises she has left her mascara at home, she borrows some from the woman in the cabin next to hers. After dinner, and a bit drunk again, she returns to her cabin where she hears a splash on the water and comes out to her private balcony to find a big smear of blood on the glass separating the balconies. But the cruise security informs her the cabin has been empty since they set sail. Did Lo really hear the splash and saw the blood, or is she just suffering from PTSD?

Ware’s second novel fits into the neo-domestic noir tradition of lately, with an unreliable female narrator. However, these neo-domestic noir novels are doing much more for female characters than they seem to by portraying the supposedly unsuitability of young women for crime narratives. Like Rachel and Nora, Lo knows that she is not the best of witnesses, but at least she is one. The corpus delicti – the requirement of someone having witnessed a crime and not the presence of a corpse, like it is usually interpreted – is a gendered jurisprudence, and women are, more often than not, seen as unreliable witnesses and even victims. So, how does this affect women in fiction and in real life? How come many rape victims decide to not come forward for fear of not being believed? Thankfully contemporary crime fiction is calling attention to this gender-biased and it is forcing modern audiences to rethink their assumptions about women and crime.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is also very aware of the crime fiction tradition to which it belongs, and Ware not only plays with the role of women in crime fiction, but with more formal features. After all, a crime committed in a small, closed space pays homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and the locked room mystery. Ware updates this tradition so that it feels fresh, while keeping a line-up of exotic and bizarre characters that make Lo feel alienated and tricked. After all, not everyone belongs to the 1%. So, although the novel is quite dark and the alcohol and the cruise confer the text a dizziness that easily affects the reader, Lo’s rich and extravagant fellow passengers offer a quirky and funny tone to the novel.

In short, The Woman in Cabin 10 clearly shows the evolution of Ware as a contemporary crime writer, and it is a thrilling read for neo-noir fans this next summer. However, Ware’s novels are darker than they seem, being a bit overwhelming – in the way excellent crime fiction is. After In a Dark, Dark Wood was picked up by Reese Witherspoon for production, I can’t wait to see what the Hollywood stars will do regarding The Woman in Cabin 10. I would not think it twice.

UK and US covers for The Woman in Cabin 10

In case I haven’t convinced you yet, you can read an extract from the book thanks to DeadGood Books here.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is out on the 30th of June 2016 in the UK.

 

The Ages of Lulu (1989) by Almudena Grandes

Even though I am Spanish, I am not the biggest fan of Spanish literature. In fact, it is very seldom that I pick up a book either written by a Spanish author or translated into Spanish. However, last March I enrolled on a course about ‘Women in Literature’ that ended up being ‘Women in Spanish Literature’. Some of the authors rang a bell while others I knew: it is one of those times when you know the names and the titles of their works, but you have never read any of the novels. It was with this frame of mind that I realised I had to read The Ages of Lulu (Las edades de Lulú in the original Spanish), a novel written in 1989 by Almudena Grandes.

The Ages of Lulu by Almudena Grandes

What Goodreads says:

At just fifteen years old, Lulu, a “round, hungry little girl,” finds that her erotic cravings are already powerfully established when she is seduced by a family friend, Pablo, twelve years her senior. This initial encounter incites the violent power play that drives an adult Lulu through a series of increasingly titillating sexual exploits. Always fascinated by the thin line separating decency and morality from perversion, Lulu gains the courage to explore the darker side of her carnal desires—but as her forays become increasingly desperate, the world of illicit and dangerous sex threatens to engulf her completely.


A groundbreaking novel of sexual exploration, The Ages of Lulu sparked international controversy and was an overnight sensation when it was first published in Spain fifteen years ago. It won the Sonrisa Vertical Prize for erotic fiction, and was made into a film starring Javier Bardem.

The author:

Spanish author Almudena Grandes

Almudena Grandes was born in Madrid in 1960. She is known for her columns for the centre-left wing newspaper El País, where she explores current politics, friendship, family and whatever issue she thinks fit. She is also a member of Izquierda Unida (‘United Left’), Spain’s traditional left wing party. She writes novels, but has also published a few short story collections and plays.

Historical context:

The Ages of Lulu is an erotic novel and its importance for Spanish literature comes directly from the time of its publication. Spain was subjected to a fascist dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 under the rule of Coronel Francisco Franco and his party, the ‘Falange’. His dictatorship was informed by Catholicism and a national movement based on the Castilian culture, and he tried to erase local traditions and languages. Opposing the dictatorship meant risking your life, and as a consequence many people just tried to survive as they could. Just to establish a parallel, think of early 20th century Ireland, and you will get a glimpse of what it was to live in Spain during the dictatorship.

This very brief historical context is important for the analysis of The Ages of Lulu due to the imposition of Catholic imaginary upon women during the dictatorship. Pilar Primo de Rivera – sister to the Falange founder – was in charge of the ‘Sección Femenina’ (‘Female Section’), an organisation that prescribed adequate behaviour and lifestyle for women. Due to the importance of Catholicism, the most influential image for women during the dictatorship was Virgin Mary, embodying the contradictions of being a virgin and a mother at the same time. For Spanish women born in the 20th century this meant a total lack of sexual education – except for a few who came from left-wing, powerful families and managed to buy the pill and condoms under the counter, risking imprisonment – and the imposition of virginal and supposedly pure values. This lead to a normalisation of a troubled relationship with female sexuality in which female desire was seen as dirty, and the label ‘whore’ was easily impossed on anyone who did not supress their libido. There was a high rate of teenage pregnancy, single motherhood was forbidden and despised and the image of the Angel in the House was expected of married women and mothers.

Once Franco was dead and Spain slowly caught up with the rest of the West, a new cultural movement emerged in Madrid called ‘La Movida’ in the 1980’s. To put it briefly, it was time to party after so many years of oppression, and ‘La Movida’ promised happiness and liberation along with parties, drugs, sex, and a lot of music. It was also a celebration of fluid sexualities and homosexuality – punished by the regime with the death penalty – and it aimed to break away with traditional gender stereotypes and role models with the celebration of travestism.

La Movida (Spain, 1980's)

The Ages of Lulu (1989):

When Grandes wrote and published The Ages of Lulu in 1989 Spain had been enjoying a democracy for 14 years, but moral values and certain codes of behaviour inherited from the regime were still very much present in everyday life. Sadly, they still are in 2016. So, the publishing of an erotic novel, narrated on the first person by a sexually active and desiring teenage girl became a national sensation and success. The novel is a bildungsroman told from a sexual perspective and follows Lulu from her first sexual encounter to a final one. In between you can find stories about being a daughter, a mother and a friend.

Las edades de Lulú

It is now time to come clear about the novel: it is very dated and dependant on the context it was written on. I found it provocative just for the sake of being so, and some scenes surprised me in a bad way. Lulu’s relationship with Pablo, the boy she has her first sexual encounter with, is still quite patriarchal and victim to an imaginary in which grown women’s sexual desire is not quite developed yet. That is, Lulu is aware of her sexual desire and she satisfies it with men and women alike, but the novel portrays this sexual desire as a rebellion against her Catholic and conservative education. As Foucault would say a rebellion does not make you free since it compels you to do the exact opposite of what you have been told to do. It just a masquerade, a reversal of the dominant discourse. But, at the time the novel was published this rebellion was the only way in which women could openly explore their sexuality and feel free.

As a consequence the novel feels like reading a teenager’s diary, a rebel without a cause (the ending is very conservative), a need for attention and a need for freedom. And I still liked it, especially the first half. Grandes makes a huge effort to inscribe sex and sexuality into everyday life, something is still absent from contemporary fiction, and produces a counter-discourse that assures the female reader it is OK to have sexual needs in whatever form they present themselves. The novel could very well be related to the 1980’s and 1990’s texts feminist and philosophical texts that exposed normative sexuality as an opening of located orifices as rites of passage.

The verdict:

Although dated, The Ages of Lulu is a landmark in Spanish fiction and it should be considered a masterpiece of the post-dictatorship feminist movement. Despite its conservative background ideas and some gross – yet very interesting – scenes, the novel depicts the carpe diem state of mind of the 1980’s, when Western culture finally entered Spain and generations who had been oppressed for decades were granted the right to do as they wanted. In this case it meant lots of sex, drugs and music. And in this case it was what the country needed.

While I was reading the novel I felt that maybe this is what readers who are disappointed with Fifty Shades of Grey should read. Both novels present a young woman’s sexual life and their relationship with an older man who tries to subject them. The Ages of Lulu is not shy in portraying non-normative sexual behaviours and practices, and in doing so is trying to inscribe them as an option, rather than a quirk. However, I will say again that the novel takes great pleasure in presenting these practices – like a rebellious teenager who knows she is doing something forbidden – and successfully translates that pleasure to the reader.

I would highly recommend The Ages of Lulu to anyone, especially women readers, in order to explore how oppression and extreme fake moral values can end up producing the opposite of what they wanted. However, if I took something from reading the novel – and this is the main reason why I am publishing this review – is to be happy and enjoy life. Grandes has reminded me that I am lucky to have the freedom to explore the many, many options and paths that life has to offer which are not planned or scheduled: they can only be lived through.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

I heard of Emma Straub’s new book Modern Lovers – to be released by Michael Joseph on the 30th of June 2016 in the UK – thanks to Book Rioter and vlogger Wallace Yovetich. If you do now know who she is, then here is the video that made me request a review copy of Modern Lovers (thanks to Penguin Random House):

Also, shortly after I started reading the book I mentioned it on Twitter and fellow bloggers like Noami from The Writes of Woman said they had loved Straub’s previous novel The Vacationers – you can read her review here. That is when I was a hundred per cent sure I was in for a treat.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers is set in contemporary New York and it tells the story of Zoe, Elizabeth and Andrew, university friends who now live a few doors away from the other and whose children attend the same school. Zoe is married to Jane, a chef I would love to meet because her recipes in the book made me hungry just by reading them, and their daughter Ruby is causing a bit of mayhem in the supposedly stable suburban neighbourhood they live in. On the other hand, Elizabeth and Andrew married almost twenty years ago and they are now parents to well-behaved, sweet Harry. And although the novel could very well focus on the present and the hardship of being a parent, Straub creates beautifully crafted pasts for the main characters who, not only were friends back at Oberlin in the early 1990’s, but they also had a band. The lead singer, Lydia, now a member of the famous 27-club and main character to a Hollywood blockbuster, became nation-wide famous for a song called Mistress of Myself, which I would have paid thousands of euros to hear while I was reading the book. But what sets the plot in motion is whether Andrew, Elizabeth and Zoe really want their past and their youth in the big screen across the country for everyone to see.

Modern Lovers is one of the best books about life and growing up that I have read in a really long time. It reminded me a lot of Meg Wolitzer’s The interestings without all the things that I did not enjoy. Because of my age, I fall between the parents’ and the children’s generations in Modern Lovers. Yet, despite the different interests and lifestyles I felt myself sympathising with all the adult female characters – sorry, Andrew, but I did not get you – and Harry’s personal journey becoming an adult. It was difficult to read at times, but overall it felt good. I was in awe at Straub’s talent to portray different ethnicities and ages, even different personalities so that everyone felt unique yet connected to each other. The jewel of the novel, however, is Ruby: at eighteen she embodies freedom, hope, and a thirst for life and the world that is infectious and inspiring in equal parts.

It seems I have drifted away a bit from crime fiction to focus on books about life and the many decisions that actually shape who we become. My latest review of Not Working by Lisa Owens prompted one tiny scare when my friend Naomi thought I was defending adulthood as a fixed identity. That is not something I believe in: I think we are constantly developing and constructing ourselves, and we need to change in order to do that. Modern Lovers is a novel that deals with that change and how it may affect our relationships, even the most profound and significant ones with our children and our significant others. But Straub portrays change as something that we need even when it is hard, so it feels fresh and exciting – although terribly scary – and something to look for in life. In short, Modern Lovers by Emma Straub is one of the greatest novels I have read about life, change and all kind of relationships, even the ones we may have with our pets. It has a more profound tone than Not Working, and the story feels more realistic than The Interestings’. However, I would like to highlight all the characters in the novel are upper-middle class, which does not take away from the novel, but plays a huge role in how the characters behave (i.e. money is never a worry for them).

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub is set to become one of the books of the summer with a profound exploration of family life, yet full of hope and love for life. Modern Lovers come out on the 30th of June in the UK, released by Penguin Random House.

Not Working by Lisa Owens

I knew I had to get my hands on Lisa Owen’s novel Not Working when I saw it described as representative of the Millennial experience at MarinaSofia’s blog. As a Millennial I could not resist the opportunity to check a funny take on what it means to be one of the most self-centered generations in literature (so, yes, this post is very much an exploration of myself as it is a review). Thank you to the lovely people at Picador who kindly sent me a hardback review copy. It is gorgeous.

Not Working by Lisa Owens

Not Working tells the story of Claire Flannery who, in her late twenties,  decides to quit her job at an office because she was not satisfied with it. The story begins with Claire’s introspections about how her life is supposed to be, how she wants it to be, and how everyone else – more Parents here included – think it should be. Thankfully she has some savings and is engaged and living with a neurosurgeon in training who can emotionally and financially support her decision.

I feel as if every decision I’ve made has cut off possibilities rather than broadened them. What if I’d make an amazing potter but will never know because I never tried it?

If you are young, I am 99% sure you will identify with Claire. We have been brought to think that one day we will be adults, we will know it, and we will behave accordingly. This is life path that Generation X or Baby Boomers established at an economically prosperous time when young people thought of their jobs as jobs, and not as life-defining choices. But we, Millennials, are playing a different game. The economic crisis is making it quite difficult for some of us to find a job that will allow us to fly the nest, and we are not sure we want to get married and have children. Why would we when we feel we have not experienced any kind of freedom at 30? [See, this is a Millennial rant]. Claire does not seem to have this problem, although her preoccupation with finding her passion in life is very much related to her preoccupation to find that adult self that comes right before settling down and enjoying that fixed identity that means being an adult. This feeling has different connotations for men and women, and Owens herself puts it better here than I could ever dream of, because sometimes I also wonder what happened to that adult-self that I always planned on being:

I realize with a vague sense of disenchantment that this phenomenon – femininity – has not manifested itself at all as I expected, in the form of vanity table, crystal perfume, atomizer, kimono suspended from silk-padded hanger, et cetera, but instead as a tangle of greyish underwear, old sports T-shirts for nighties and an unruly Boots-special-offer-dictated assortment of half-finished moisturizer, packets of face wipes and bunches of tampons.

The story is told only from Claire’s point of view – no other option here for a generation who overshares in social media – and is divided into days and vignettes, like Noami accurately described them. I especially enjoyed Claire’s reflection on the tube, as they perfectly reflect the stream of consciousness and all the judgement that comes from using public transportation. I was also moved by her relationship with her mother, as it seems that our generation is finding it a bit difficult to connect with our parents’ due to different values and lifestyles.

However, I wonder whether Owen’s portrayal of a Millennial crisis is too idealised, with Claire living in an apartment in London and enjoying the financial security of a neurosurgeon boyfriend. But, since the book is a light yet profound read for my generation, I will consider that setting a necessity for all the funny and tragic decisions Claire makes, like overspending in wine and paying a hundred pounds for sessions with a personal trainer that she does not want.

In short, Not Working will work for many of us who are still figuring out this thing called ‘adulting’, and who, comparing their lives to their parents’ at their age,  wonder if they did something wrong along the road, or whether another lifestyle is emerging that will allow us to be more fluid, and more plastic beings. In any case, Owen’s novel will remind us to toss away all the ideas we have in our minds about how life is supposed to be and feel and just live it and feel it as it comes.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Last month I found out that almost everyone on my Twitter timeline was talking about a book called The Girls by Emma Cline, and it was not only my fellow and trusted bloggers, but non-literary vloggers as well, such as Lex. I did some research online and when I found out what the book was about I knew I had to get my hands on a review copy as soon as possible before Penguin Random House ran out of them in the summer.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls tells the story of Evie from two moments in her life: the present, and the 1969 fateful summer in California when she first saw Suzanne. Long-haired, a bit dirty, and verging on too-thing, Suzanne will bring to mind the heroine-chic image of the 1990’s. And middle-class, and sixteen-year old Evie fell for that image like many other men and women have done ever since. From this moment on, Evie will find her own rebellion against her parents and the comfort and security they stand for, while Suzanne will let her into a new world of drugs, sex, and death.

If you are a reader of crime fiction or have any interest at all in the history of crime, the plot of The Girls will ring a bell or two. Cline’s inspiration for the book is the Manson Family and the killings that Manson’s followers perpetrated in 1969. The similarities with the Manson Family crimes are many, beginning with Suzanne’s name,  inspired by real-life Susan Atkins, and the key role music plays in the story. I mention this here because it does not take anything away from the book. Evie’s story is a bildungsroman and a coming-of-age story with a dark and twisted turn. But we know from the very first page that she comes alive out of it. The novel is still built around the crimes, but Cline’s elegant and captivating prose is all about Evie and how she construct her identity at a time when the hippie culture was everywhere and middle-class values were rejected.

From left to right: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten in 1970.

From left to right: Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten in 1970.

We were, Russell told us, starting a new kind of society. Free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy. We were in service of a deeper love. (From The Girls).

The combination of present and past narratives is quite interesting, but the present storyline failed to catch my attention. Cline is a much better writer of the teenager, tortured mind than she is of an adult, middle-aged woman, almost comparable to Megan Abbott in the way they denounce the specificity of being a girl in a patriarchal society:

The didn’t have very far to fall – I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Oujia board.

I was surprised at how much I still identified with Evie  – despite our 11-year age difference – more than likely due to the desire to escape mundane, everyday life. All the music, drugs, late-night bonfires and parties make of The Girls the perfect reading for escapism and a bit of nostalgia for a past so far away, it feels like a golden age, hence my desire to get my hands on a review copy before its release next June. I do not think the publishing date is arbitrary and I truly believe the book will become one of the books of this summer, paying back to Penguin Random House the $2 million contract Cline has supposedly signed. Forget about your job, your career, or your family. This book will resonate with anyone who has ever needed a break from her own life: long, hot, summer nights spent with friends, with barely no cares and no schedules, no deadlines. Just total freedom.

The Girls is everything it promises to be. It is an ode to a long gone age when we knew nothing about drugs, and everyone had the freedom to experiment, all through pink-tainted glasses. But it is also a retelling of a pop culture event that has captured the USA’s attention for half a century. So much so, that when a 25-year old California artist decided to write her first novel, she decided to revisit the events. If not for the story, The Girls has to be praised and analysed as a reflection of what a new generation of writers is looking back at. Or, maybe, it needs to be read as a representation of structures of power that are still at play, with Cline’s own captivating relationship with a charismatic man four times her age when she was just 13. In any case, The Girls is a novel that needs to be read for the brief break it will give readers about adult, modern life and transport them back to adolescence at a time when everything seemed simpler. But, there’s the trick: everything that looks simple has the danger of being deeper and darker than we imagined. Just like Cline’s debut.

The Girls by Emma Cline will be released next June by Penguin Random House in the UK.

 

Exclusive Interview: Megan Abbott on Girls, Feminism, and Crime Fiction

Today and I am very happy, excited and proud to welcome American author Megan Abbott to Books & Reviews. After reviewing her upcoming novel You Will Know Me (out next June), I contacted Megan to talk about her middle-class American girls signature narrative, feminism, and many other topics that I thought would be interesting for those of us who do feminism, crime fiction and female main characters. Welcome to Books & Reviews Megan, and thank you for everything:

American author Megan Abbott

American author Megan Abbott

  1. You have inscribed the female teenage experience in contemporary crime fiction inaugurating a new crime fiction subgenre. Why and when did you decide to start writing about female teenagers in such a dark – and interesting – way?
    I think the specifics and ambiguities of female adolescence are so rich and yet still pretty underexplored, so that’s a big enticement. But it’s the female experience more generally, particularly its darker corners, that I most want to push my way into. And so much about womanhood is laid bare during one’s teen years. No one’s figured out yet how to hide the pangs and sorrows of that age, and its intensity is great stuff for books. It’s the age when you become yourself, so I think we never stop going back there as women, trying to figure it out.
  1. What/Who was the inspiration for your latest novel, You Will Know Me?
    I’ve always been interested in families of prodigies and what it’s like, in particular, to be the parent of a prodigy. Then, four years ago, I saw this footage during the London Olympics of the parents of American gymnast Aly Raisman. They were watching their daughter’s floor routine and were so invested in it, so connected to her. The footage went viral and the response to it was so complicated. Some people found it funny, others found it problematic, troubling. I think we all struggle with how invested parents should be in their children’s development and in case of exceptionally talented children, all that is thrown into high relief. It seemed a perfect world to explore. How does that kind of focus affect a marriage, for instance? Sibling relationships? And families in general fascinate me—the place of the greatest darkness and the greatest light.
  1. The female body plays a key role in most of your novels: in The Fever the main characters’ bodies made them vulnerable to an epidemic, in You Will Know Me, Devon’s body is a tool, a source of both strength and anxieties. What did you have in mind for both novels (taking into account the long tradition of female bodies as passive entities in crime fiction)?
    I can’t say I have a plan or intent, but it’s certainly on my mind a lot. It’s so hard, in this culture, for a woman’s body to feel fully her own. The female body is something to be looked at, shaped, molded, concealed, sexualized, etc. In my books I’m really interested in how women shape or mold themselves. Seizing control of this out-of-control thing, or this thing out of her control. And with athletes, it’s so central. Their body is their weapon, their power.

    You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

    You Will Know Me, Abbott’s upcomig novel will be released on the 30th June

  1. All your novels feature strong female characters. They are fighters, and although they may be vulnerable, they can be considered role models for Young Adult readers (and adult readers like myself as well!). Do you consider yourself a feminist?
    I definitely consider myself a feminist. But I don’t write with any kind of agenda. That can be lethal to fiction, I think. And I avoid ever thinking in terms of role models when I write. My goal is to make all my characters real, complicated, flawed, but I do think it’s particularly important to have female characters of all ages who are full of contradictions, as we all are. And I love to explore those impulses and drives—aggression, ambition, subversive desire—that have, historically, been suppressed in women.
  1. Last, but not least, any literary crime fiction recommendations for readers looking for a strong and complex female character? [They can be from any time you want, not necessarily published this year]
    Yes! Laura Lippman’s novels, most recently After I’m Gone and the forthcoming Wilde Lake. Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. Alison Gaylin’s dark Hollywood tale, What Remains of Me. Alex Marwood’s The Darkest Secret.

Megan Abbott is the author of seven novels, several short stories,  and the winner of the Edgar Award for Outstanding fiction. She also writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books , and has her own blog. Born in Detroit, she graduated from the University of Michigan and went to earn a PhD in American literature at the University of New York and she has written about the representation of masculinity in hard-boiled crime fiction and film noir.

For more about Megan Abbott, you can visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

Reader, I Married Him (Short Story Collection) Edited by Tracy Chevalier

Every time I review a short story collection, I always say I am not the biggest fan of them, but that is not actually true. During the time I have been writing here I have found a few marvellous collection that always become ‘one of the best books of…’. This time Hayley from Harper Collins sent me Reader, I Married HIm: Stories inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier. I did not know anything about the collection before I was sent it, but I loved the idea of seeing how Jane Eyre has influenced contemporary authors. Harper Collins is publishing Reader, I Married Him on account of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday on the 21st of April.

Reader, I Married Him

‘Reader, I Married Him’ is probably one of the most well-known lines from literature, especially if we are talking about women writers. It would rank high with Rebecca‘s ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ and Pride and Prejudice’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife‘. Editor Tracy Chevalier has teamed up with authors such as Susan Hill, Tessa Hadley, Helen Dunmore, Lionel Shriver, Esther Freud, Audrey Niffenegger, and Namwali Serpeli to produce a collection of short stories that take place all over the world, in very different times, and with very different themes, but all connected by Brontë’s masterpiece.

It is very hard to review a short story collection – especially like this one – because all the stories are different and they all have different themes. However, I was surprised to find more than a few short stories in which Helen Burns and Grace Poole are given a voice and more space and time than in the original. This is a collection of stories written only by women, inspired by a woman writer and a female main character that changed the history of literature forever. No wonder then, that all but a few decided to contribute by placing a young woman as the main character and a narrator most of the times. So, if there is a something that definitely connects all the stories it is the legacy of Jane Eyre as an example of endurance and female agency at a time when women were supposed to be passive and give up their own voices for the men in their lives. But, as Chevalier herself highlights in the foreword:

“Reader, I married him” is Jane’s defiant conclusion to her rollercoaster story. It is not, “Reader, he married me” – as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even, “Reader, we married”. Instead, Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative, and it is she who chooses to be with Rochester.

Anyone can imagine the importance of this short story collection where the 19th century and 21st century literary traditions merge in order to pay homage to one of the best and most beloved woman writers in the history of Western literature. Not only that, but with the inclusion of authors of non-Western backgrounds Chevalier has achieved the ultimate update of the classic offering the reader a more complex and more diverse take on Jane’s story. The book is then, perfect for the #ReadWomen and #ReadDiverse projects that try to encourage the reading of books by women authors and by BAME and LGBT writers.

Due to that freedom of re-imagining, it is sometimes hard to see the connection to Jane Eyre, and to see how even the characters may relate. However, I was immediately charmed by”Dorset Gap” by Tracy Chevalier, a contemporary take on the story depicting a date between a Janey and an Ed, university students, out on a hike together. I was also fascinated by the many ways in which Jane Eyre‘s marriage to a completely inappropriate man can be interpreted as the beginning of an abusive relationship, with important consequences that would take place after Brontë’s happily ever after ending. Whenever I think about the novel, I see it as a love story, but I had never stopped to reconsider it under the light of romantic love – an enterprise of Third Wave feminism in which traditional and patriarchal ideas about love can lead to a woman’s subjection and abuse in a relationship with her partner. So, I was thankful and glad that some authors decided to explore what could have become of Jane and Rochester, and how their relationship would translate to a time when despite 200 years of social developments, women still consider 19th century a role model. Just a reminder that Charlotte is still shaking our world and urging us to lead better, more fulfilling lives as women.

If you want to read more reviews, click here.