Review: JANE by April Lindner

September 21, 2010

Jane
Author: April Lindner
Publisher: Poppy (an imprint of Little, Brown)
Pages: 367
ISBN: 9780316084208
Publication date: 11 October 2010
Review book source: ARC from the publisher

Summary
From the publisher: Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a job as a nanny at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance. But there’s a mystery at Thornfield, and Jane’s much-envied relationship with Nico is tested by a torturous secret from his past.

An irresistible romance interwoven with a darkly engrossing mystery, this contemporary retelling of the beloved classic Jane Eyre promises to enchant a new generation of readers.

My thoughts
I must start with a caveat: I read Jane Eyre in high school and hated it. I’ve since warmed to “the classics,” mostly after a college course called The Victorian Novel in which we read eight works from the early emergence of the novel to the end of the Victorian era and considered them not only in their literary context but their historical and social contexts, too. The course was taught by the best professor I’ve ever had, and her enthusiasm for the subject rubbed off on me. In fact, I still count Vilette as one of my favorite books, so it’s not even as if I have some sort of special beef with Charlotte Brontë. I haven’t taken the time to revisit Jane Eyre again, though, so it was with particular interest that I opened Lindner’s retelling: would this be a pathway to appreciating the original in a way I hadn’t before?

Unfortunately, I think there are too many elements of Jane Eyre that were so grounded in Victorian life that they’re very difficult to translate. I’m not sure contemporary American society has any societal difference so extreme as class differences then, so simply making Jane newly destitute and Nico a rockstar doesn’t put them on separate enough planes, especially in an age where people of royal lineage marry “commoners.” Jane’s sudden fall from wealth and her departure from college life was also hard to swallow–she couldn’t have taken out loans or transferred to a state school or community college?–and then her subsequent poverty on fleeing Thornfield Park seemed unbelievable, too, since she’d been working for months with her room and board covered for an incredibly rich man.

The problems also run deeper than just matters of wealth and class: when Jane discovers that Bibi, Nico’s first wife, is schizophrenic and living in the tower on the third floor of the mansion, just barely kept under control by the alcoholic Bertha, I was shocked by how offensive the portrayal of schizophrenia was. Nico’s insistence that putting her in some institution was too horrifying to contemplate (because have you seen those places?) also seemed a thin excuse. Our understanding of and treatment of the mentally ill now compared to when Jane Eyre was first published have evolved so much as to make this scene make Nico seem cruel and even dangerous. And did he really think, with our current system of computerized records and more official marriage registrations, that he could marry Jane without divorcing Bibi first?

The malice with which Jane’s family treats her both before and after her parents’ deaths was hard to believe; that she would have such selective access to cell phones and the Internet was hard to believe; her utter ignorance of and insulation from pop music and pop culture were hard to believe. Her tenure as a nanny felt not like time as a nanny but as time as a governess. Jane’s description as strong and self-assured doesn’t play out in her constant self-doubt and the way the story feels like it’s happening to her instead of because of her. Her interest only in classical music, painting, and French with absolutely no concessions to modern life make her seem like a relic from Victorian times. There was just so much in this story that seemed to happen or exist only because something similar happened to the original Jane, and the Victorian feel was too preserved within the insular grounds of Thornfield Park. I think Lindner wanted to stay as close to the original source material in her retelling, but it means her story uncomfortably straddles the original setting and values and our more modern life with a stable foothold in neither.

But I think the thing that bothered me most about this story was the relationship between Jane and Nico. I didn’t understand why their romance was forbidden from the start; their interactions are all stilted as she remains far too formal even after living at Thornfield Park for months; and there’s no reason for them to fall in love with each other (she does so mysteriously, maybe pulled in by his music, and he falls for her… because she resists his advances at first, unlike the previous nannies?). Why would you want to be with someone who causes you unbearable heartache because he’s trying to make you jealous so you’ll want him more, who lies to you about still being married, and who is super-controlling? When Jane finds out that Nico tried to trick her into a wedding while he was still married to the mentally ill person he was keeping imprisoned in his mansion, threatening the safety of everyone else who lives there, she decides to leave (smart girl!)–and then she fears that he’s going to come after her, that he’s going to use her bank activity or cell phone use to find her, that his “violent temper” will flare up again. She abandons every part of her previous life and lives and works using a new name because she’s afraid of him. All of this makes her sound exactly like a woman who’s been suffering from domestic abuse but is afraid to leave because of her partner’s violence and control over her and because she doesn’t have the financial independence to support herself away from him. That is not what love is like! Maybe in the era of Edward and Bella this is enchantingly romantic, but in the real world, these are all warning signs of an abusive relationship–and I mean that with zero exaggeration.

All of that said, I think that readers who loved Jane Eyre will enjoy seeing the story adapted to modern times and will be much more forgiving of these problems in modernization and the dynamic of Jane and Nico’s relationship. Readers who haven’t yet dipped into what Austen and Brontë have to offer can use Lindner’s retelling as their introduction to these classic stories. Teens looking for stories of forbidden romance, dangerous mystery, or sentimental tales of virtuous heroines bravely suffering through the injustices and humiliations life has heaped upon them so they can be rewarded with a man at the end will like this story. Lindner’s Jane does a remarkable job of staying true to its source material and capturing all of the melodrama of the original–and for some people, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

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Bonus
Here’s the official book trailer:

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