Monday, January 16, 2017

Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 13, 2017

A gorgeous, deft literary retelling of Charlotte Bronte's beloved Jane Eyre--through the eyes of the dashing, mysterious Mr. Rochester himself.

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Illustration of Edward and Jane by F. H. Townsend
I’ve nothing against Charlotte Bronte, but Jane Eyre is not my favorite classic. Jane’s marital struggles hit too close to home and I find that I am more inclined to reference the novel in jest than I am to recommend its contents. All things considered, I probably should have avoided Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, but the novel’s premise proved too intriguing to ignore. I was curious and there was simply no end to the questions that taunted my imagination. How would a woman write Jane’s iconic lover? How exactly did he fall prey to his father and elder brother? How would a woman validate his deceit toward Jane?  

Unfortunately, many of the questions that drew me to the novel remain unanswered even after finishing the narrative. I enjoyed the masculine perspective and historical depth of the story, but can’t deny that the reality of the novel left me wanting. Mr. Rochester is an ambitious project and much like Mr. Darcy’s Diary and Rhett Butler’s People, there will be fans who adore it and others who find it flawed. I can’t and don’t pretend to speak for everyone, but I fall into the latter demographic in this instance as I felt the narrative failed to capitalize on the spirit Bronte hinted her hero was meant to possess.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester states, “When I was as old as you, I was a feeling fellow enough, partial to the unfledged, unfostered, and unlucky; but Fortune has knocked me about since: she has even kneaded me with her knuckles, and now I flatter myself I am hard and tough as an India-rubber ball; pervious, though, through a chink or two still, and with one sentient point in the middle of the lump. Yes: does that leave hope for me?... Of my final re-transformation from India-rubber back to flesh?" This essence of character is referenced once again in the final chapter when Jane relays that “When his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were — large, brilliant, and black. On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.” I may be alone in my assessment, but I feel these lines imply that Jane restored to Edward the generous, optimistic, and grateful nature that was stolen by the betrayal of those closest to him. This understanding manifested itself in an expectation that any story based on Rochester should naturally feature the growth of that personality and the circumstances that crushed it, but that view was not it seems, shared by Shoemaker. Her version of Rochester’s life is stark, muted, and often mimics the experiences of his beloved Jane. In her eyes, Edward is a lonely and neglected child who turns into a lost and rather insecure young man. I respect that interpretations differ, but I personally felt Shoemaker’s approach weakened Rochester’s overall character and that it lessened import and influence that Jane’s affections are shown to afford in the original novel.

Jane herself doesn’t appear until the final third of narrative and their love affair is expanded very little by that which Shoemaker illustrates in the closing chapters. I will say that I appreciated Shoemaker’s treatment of Mrs. Fairfax, but like Bronte, I feel Shoemaker shortchanged Grace Poole and while I liked what she attempted to do with Richard, I felt both illustrations could have been more intuitive and enlightening. I felt Edward’s relationship with his father and elder brother equally disappointing and was frustrated that the tension between them was so often muted by physical distance. The additional supporting cast left virtually no impression on me, but I will note a particular frustration with Gerald. Short of feeling superfluous to the narrative, I felt his scenes forced and unnatural. His existence was enough to serve Shoemaker’s purpose and I couldn’t help feeling his adult presence upstaged that of Richard in the latter chapters of the narrative.

When all is said and done, I don’t feel Mr. Rochester allows any new understanding of Edward as it does not elaborate on his life, personality, or emotions beyond that of his original incarnation. The same can be said of the supporting cast and while I feel there is merit in the historical scope of the novel, I’m not sure that I could recommend it on other grounds. 

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In her goodness, Jane did not yet understand that good intentions and moral truth might inflict as dangerous, as painful—indeed as fatal—a wound as malicious intent.
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Mystica said...

I love this review (and the cover!)

Erin Davies said...

Thank you Mystica!