Although I read it almost 40 years ago (and, oh, it pains me to say that!) Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the story of Jane, an orphan who is mistreated by her awful cousins and finally finds love and a home at Thornfield Hall, the estate of the enigmatic and darkly handsome Edward Rochester, has stayed with me my entire life. I remember the specific feeling of satisfaction I had while reading it – my first ‘adult’ novel; but, more than that, I fell in love with Jane. I felt, in her, a kindred spirit – a bookish, sensible and rather plain young woman – someone I could relate to.
I tell my writing students that we tell the same stories over and over and our real job as writers is to find fresh and inventive ways to do that: to make the old new. Perhaps that explains the glut of sequels and prequels and little women turned zombie killers on the bookshelves these days. Despite my reservations about these books, I have to say that I have a few on my bookshelves; mostly these books are ones I hope I can pass on to my students.
April Lindner’s book Jane comes with the tagline “What if Jane Eyre fell in love with a rock star?” Lindner herself is a Jane Eyre fan and claims that as much as she “love[s] the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs … if I had to choose between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, I’d be on Team Bronte.” She wondered why there wasn’t some sort of Jane Eyre redux and thought it might have to do with some of the complicating factors of the original: a crazy woman locked in an attic could hardly happen with today’s modern medicine.
Still, Lindner decided to see if she could finesse Jane’s story into the 21st century. Sadly, I can’t say that she’s altogether successful.
Jane Moore has to leave her East Coast college after the death of her parents. The stocks they left her turn out to be worthless; her older siblings did marginally better, but she isn’t close to them. At all. In fact they are horrible. Unlike Bronte’s Jane, though, we aren’t given any real insight into why the family dynamics are so messed up. So, we just have to accept that Jane’s stiff-upper-lip is because of some deep-rooted childhood trauma. So, without a degree or money, Jane decides to become a nanny. Lucky girl, she gets to work for Nico Rathburn – über famous rock star guy. Seriously, if there is a bigger star on the planet, we don’t know who he is. Jane sort of knows who Rathburn is because her brother used to blare his music all the time, but Jane is above all that.
Off Jane goes to the Thornfield Park where she meets various employees of Rathburn’s and his five-year-old daughter, Maddy. She’s also warned to stay away from the third floor because, despite Nico’s wealth, “the floorboards are old and rotting.” Nico, when he finally shows up, is prickly and kinda hot. And despite the awkward conversation between them, it’s not long before Jane realizes she’s in love with Mr. Rathburn (yes, she still calls him that!)
Here’s where I started to giggle. We are expected to buy into this relationship – and yet I never believed any of it. All their conversations were extremely awkward and somehow inappropriate. I’m not just talking about the age difference (Jane is 19 or perhaps 20 and Rathburn has had one marriage, one child with another woman and scads – by his own admission – of liaisons with groupies and super models). He seems to have no problem revealing very personal details to Jane, almost from the moment he meets her. But he also has no problem fawning over a beautiful photographer, ostensibly to make Jane jealous. Really? Nico seems less tortured and more torturer.
There’s no emotional center to Lindner’s Jane. Ironically, the novel ends up being as glossy and superficial as the magazines Jane manages to avoid after she runs away from Nico and his dark secret. (Which also, really?)
If Jane manages to encourage a new generation of readers to pick up Bronte’s vastly superior novel, that will be an accomplishment. But I can’t imagine any fans of the original thinking this update has anything much to offer.