Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Breath of Eyre by Eve Marie Mont

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 6, 2013

In this stunning, imaginative novel, Eve Marie Mont transports her modern-day heroine into the life of Jane Eyre to create a mesmerizing story of love, longing, and finding your place in the world... Emma Townsend has always believed in stories-the ones she reads voraciously, and the ones she creates. Perhaps it's because she feels like an outsider at her exclusive prep school, or because her stepmother doesn't come close to filling the void left by her mother's death. And her only romantic prospect-apart from a crush on her English teacher-is Gray Newman, a long-time friend who just adds to Emma's confusion. But escape soon arrives in an old leather-bound copy of Jane Eyre... Reading of Jane's isolation sparks a deep sense of kinship. Then fate takes things a leap further when a lightning storm catapults Emma right into Jane's body and her nineteenth-century world. As governess at Thornfield, Emma has a sense of belonging she's never known-and an attraction to the brooding Mr. Rochester. Now, moving between her two realities and uncovering secrets in both, Emma must decide whether her destiny lies in the pages of Jane's story, or in the unwritten chapters of her own...

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North Lees Hall, the inspiration behind Thornfield Hall
Image by J147 (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
I have a love-hate relationship with retellings. I find them a fascinating sub-genre, but concede they have as much potential to impress as they do to vex. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to cross paths with immensely satisfying reads such as Jax Garren's How Beauty Met the Beast, Elizabeth Bunce's A Cruse Dark as Gold or Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness. On the other end of the spectrum I have had titles that left me bitterly disappointed such as A.G. Gaughen's Scarlet, Alex Flinn's A Kiss in Time, or Steve Hockensmith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Knowing where a book will fall is absolutely impossible which is why I tried to keep an open mind as I began Eve Marie Mont's A Breath of Eyre.

For the record I love Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In point of fact I reread the classic in conjunction with this novel in hopes of better appreciating Mont's work. Unfortunately I feel the decision actually detracted from the novel as it brought to light exactly how much of the original was sacrificed in its creation.

Jane Eyre Illustration by F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920
For instance, one of the primary themes in Bronte's work is that of forgiveness. Jane excuses the mistreatment she suffered as a member of the Reed household as well as Rochester's indiscretions and past wrongs. This idea is eliminated in the cross over portions of the retelling as the Reed family does not even make an appearance and Emma deviates significantly from Jane's path by ultimately refusing to overlook Rochester's actions in order to promote Mont's perception of feminism.

I say Mont's perception because I feel she imposed her modern sensibilities on Bronte's cast, something I feel entirely unjust for what is in part historic fiction, and in Jane's case, wholly unnecessary. For her time, Jane is the very definition of a feminist. By and large, Victorian women were not raised to value education nor were they expected to make decisions regarding their own futures. Bronte's Jane does both. She is a strong woman who defied the stereotypic roles to which society regulated her nineteenth century counterparts. In contrast, Mont uses Jane as a foil for Emma, allocating her to the role of doormat in order to promote Emma's 'superior' version of feminine independence.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
To say I was disappointed to see one of my favorite classics treated this way is something of an understatement. Mont's re-imagining of Bertha, her superficial recreation of Bronte's work as a period romance, the subtle alterations she made to Rochester's make-up... I don't mind retellings that deviate from the originals, but I feel the best ones are those that can emulate or at least compliment the work on which they are based. I didn't see that in A Breath of Eyre. Yes, Mont borrows Bronte's characters and certain events from their story, but I can't help feeling her work trivializes the merits and spirit of the classic.

Despite my ill-regard for this imprudence and the presentation of forgiveness as one of her own creations,  I did appreciate Mont's attempt to address some weightier subject matter, particularly as it applied to her target audience. Mental disorders, teenage romance, drug use, sex, alcohol, suicide... Mont covers all these subjects and more. I've never come across young adult fiction that covers these topics in such realistic tones and I couldn't admire the manner in which handled them more.

At the end of the day, A Breath of Eyre isn't something I would recommend as a retelling, but I think it fits the bill for those looking for intriguing young adult lit. For my part, I haven't given up on the Unbound series, the trilogy promises to incorporate elements from two more beloved classics, but I think my experience with the first installment will serve as something of a guide in the formation of my expectations from here on out.

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I feared what I had done to Jane's fate in coming here. But my curiosity as Emma far outweighed any sense of loyalty I felt to Jane's story.
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