We are very grateful to Kensington Books for sending us a review copy of this book.
A Breath of Eyre Eve Marie Mont
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: K-Teen/Dafina; Original edition (2012)
A Breath of Eyre is the first of the Unbound YA trilogy of books where Eve Marie Mont uses three classical books - Jane Eye, The Scarlett Letter and Le Fantôme de l'Opéra (an odd choice of books with practically no stylistic connections between them) - to explain the story of Emma Townsend since her teenage years to her early youth. The diluted 21st century version of the bildungsroman adapted and filtered to (female) YA audiences.
The first title of the series spins around Charlotte Brontë's novel in two ways. The novel itself loosely follows the main events of Jane Eyre and the its main character, Emma Townsend actually jumps into Charlotte Brontë's narrative stepping into Jane's shoes for a while. As much as we regret to say this and against all odds, the journeys into the the original novel are the most boring passages of the novel, maybe because we, as Brontëites, know them by heart and Eve Marie Mont doesn't try to recreate them (except for the final Eyre part) but only to retell them almost verbatim.
This is, in our opinion, the main flaw of the novel. We are not talking here of a Jasper Fforde-like collusion(1), coexistence and permeability of reality and fiction (needless to say it neither does it have the sense of humour of the Thursday Next saga). Emma Townsend's journeys into Jane Eyre come from severe trauma and near-death experiences (a struck of lightning, drowning) which causes her to be in coma for a while. Regrettably the coma is not used creatively as on the Life on Mars TV series (or its no less brilliant sequel Ashes to Ashes)(2) to put Emma, a 21st century teenager, in the context of the 19th century and try to adjust to the radical changes she would find. Of course, this has been done before since the days of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court(3) up until the recent TV series Lost in Austen(4) which could have been a good starting point for these novels.
Eve Marie Mont's agenda is very different and seems to use the novel basically as a prestigious alibi and as an excuse to develop a discourse which reads the novel under the somewhat outdated light of mid-20th century feminist critical approach which culminated in Gilbert and Gubar's groundbreaking Madwoman in the Attic.The vindication of Bertha Mason is a well-known, firmly established basic trend of any modern reading of Jane Eyre. Eve Marie Mont's take is, in this sense, not really very radical or innovative although, in the context of the YA literature, it can be a bold move. A Breath of Eyre demolishes in its contemporary story the figure of Rochester who is reduced to nothing more than a pathetic Byronic wannabe with no real courage. Sometimes Emma Townsend's views as Jane or as Emma seem more a Reader's Digest approach for teens of the recent critical views of Jane Eyre: like the feminist re-evaluation of Jane and Bertha, we also find that Jane and Bertha are two sides of the same coin, much like the psychoanalytical approaches to the novel which are behind Polly Teale's successful theatrical Jane Eyre adaptation(5).
As we said before, the best moments of A Breath of Eyre come from the interaction between Emma and her friends and family, which are surprisingly (or not) the less Eyre-influenced topics. Although the novel is sold as a romantic coming-of-age story the most interesting and moving parts come from the seemingly tangential stories of the lost mother and the communication problems between father and daughter. The weight of untold things, of never-revealed, long-time buried secrets and the painful fight against depression are topics not too often explored in these kind of novels. A Breath of Eyre embraces them, gives them purpose and a proper and positive closure. Not a small achievement.
We don't know how Emma Townsend will be able to enter into Nathaniel Hawthorne or Gaston Leroux's novels (it seems that lightnings and drownings are enough traumatic experiences for a lifetime). Nevertheless the main problem of this saga (is it really necessary that all novels addressed to young readers should be trilogies or sagas?) will not be the classical novel alibi behind it, the main challenge will be to be maintain the interest in Emma Townsend's growing up experiences now that her personal traumas seem to have been left behind. We will have to wait and see.
Notes: (1) In particular the first novel of the Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair (2001), Hodder and Stoughton. (2) Life on Mars (BBC One 2006-2007) Created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah; Ashes to Ashes (BBC One 2008-2009) Created by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. There was also an unsuccesful US remake: Life on Mars (ABC 2008). Developed by Josh Appelbaum,Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg. (3) Usually credited as one of the first novels to use time-travel in S/F. (4) Lost in Austen (ITV, 2008) Written by Guy Andrews. (5) Jane Eyre. Adapted by Polly Teale. Premiere, 14 October 1997 at the Young Vic Theatre, London.