An American Heir: A Modern Retelling of Jane EyreDespite the fact that we have seen and read a few retellings of Jane Eyre of late, we are still amazed at the versatility of the story and how well it lends itself to the writer's imagination and the story they want to tell their audience. Some of them follow a more rigid pattern while others are freer. An American Heir(1): A Modern Retelling of Jane Eyre by Chrissy Breen Keffer would find its place among the former, despite its contemporary setting.
Chrissy Breen Keffer
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And that is no easy task either. Finding modern equivalents and contemporary flaws as well as using the turning points in the novel but not copying them word for word is quite a feat even if, sometimes, the writer seems to have highlighted the basic structure of the novel in order to stick firmly to it, never deviating from it, something which, for the readers who are well-acquainted with the novel, might seem somewhat predictable: the reader always knows what is going to happen, the only question is exactly how. Yet in that 'how' is where the writer's prowess and imagination are really put to the test. We, for instance, found that the red room equivalent in An American Heir was quite clever and well thought-out. The contemporary, modern additions were, in most cases, quite imaginative as well. The dreamy Helen Burns - here called Sophie Fielding - doesn't actually have much in common with her original from Jane Eyre yet she more than serves - if a little one-dimensionally - her purpose in the novel. Many a teenager could benefit from her speech on 'what is cool'.
The settings have also been modified a little: here Bea Stephens - our contemporary Jane - finds herself going to school not in a charity institution but at one of America's most exclusive (and fictional) schools: Glamorgan. There she finds herself not surrounded by her so-called 'equals' as in the original novel but by what would be more like 'peaceful' equivalents of Blanche Ingram et al. She has a scholarhip and has to work at the cafeteria, which accounts for her not being very popular.
It is of course years after leaving the Glamorgan school that Bea's first encounter with Ethan Stuart (the updated Rochester) takes place. This encounter - preceded by Jane's arrival at his house where she meets the story's Mrs Fairfax, Mrs Blakely - is predictable but well-told. And their subsequent and blossoming friendship has been carefully rearranged in order to make her meet current employer-employee relationships, which are (supposedly at least) not quite so formal as those in the 19th century. Some of their conversations are rather more superficial than those of Jane and Rochester(2), although that is perhaps correctly done - a sign of the times.
Particular care seems to have been taken in re-creating Adèle - Eleanor here. Just like in the original novel Adèle started by shocking Jane singing an inappropriate song, here little Eleanor shocks Bea by singing - and dancing to - a Christina Aguilera song, which makes for a very apt introduction to this little girl.
It is at this point, however, where the highlighted basic structure seems to become less imaginative. An interesting background has been created for Rochester's secret but - as with many contemporary retellings - suspension of disbelief is harder to obtain than in the original novel, making the reader want to believe the turning plot in the point but feeling disgruntled by it all the same. When you're reading Jane Eyre, Jane's escape from Rochester is believable if only because it is well-reasoned. In many retellings, and An American Heir is no exception, we are afraid, Jane's equivalent escape feels forced and somewhat pointless. As earlier, however, the fault of this might lie more perhaps in the times than in the actual work of fiction.
However, Bea's St John Rivers - unaided unfortunately by charming sisters - here called Jonathan Stone (and what a perfect name that is) and the whole episode about him (them, actually) is about the worst of the story because of its mere sketchiness. We may be wrong here but, despite the fact that it touches upon the author's actual interests(3), it feels as if she was having a really hard time writing it and trying and making sense of it. Jonathan and his connection to Bea seemed to us quite hard to believe, perhaps because he is portrayed quite superficially, which contrasts deeply with Charlotte Brontë's in-depth, three-dimensional depiction of St John Rivers. But then again, the problem here might be similar to Jane's escape from Rochester - it is not easy to create a character that makes the reader have a similar reaction to that had when reading about the original St John Rivers.
Overall, An American Heir will offer an entertaining read - particularly now that summer is upon us - for Jane Eyre fans, who - at any rate - can always enjoy themselves by comparing, judging and reimagining scenes. And also, modern retellings and their authors' imaginations, when bent on placing the story in our days, are very useful to remind us and show us anew what, because of the gap in time, we can't always experience firsthand with the original novel, but have to find out via notes, etc. And Chrissy Breen Keffer has done a fantastic job of that.
(1) We must say that we find the pun in the title really very clever.
(2) For instance, we don't think genetics are as simple as this:
'... her lawyers contacted mine to let me know that I was the father of a baby girl. I sent money for a while, then noticed something in a picture of Eleanor that showed me I had been played again.'(3) According to her Facebook profile, she studied Theology at University.
'Eleanor has brown eyes; she can't be yours'.
Categories: Review, Jane Eyre