Years ago, I wrote a “book of my heart,” a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s classic romance, Jane Eyre. I’ve already blogged a good deal about this book, about what Bronte’s original meant to me, why I decided to retell it, how I fashioned that retelling, and the research I did into the time period and setting (late 1920s Hollywood when films went through the cataclysmic change from silent to sound). You can find a lot of those posts on this blog.
When the book was finally published in hardcover, I eagerly awaited reviews and was gratified by the number of reviews that appreciated the book’s virtues, even if some contained a criticism here and there of some aspect of the tale. Not every review was wildly enthusiastic, but the vast majority were positive to extremely positive, with some exceptionally thoughtful and complimentary reviews from Bronte experts. Those reviews I treasured because they were written by Jane Eyre lovers such as myself. They noted the parallels and divergences of the two stories, the characterizations and how they differed yet offered the reader comfortable similarities, and how Sloane Hall, although a retelling, presented the reader with surprises that made the story fresh and new. Virtually every goal I tried to achieve with the tale, they “got,” the most important objective, of course, being a “good read.”
One review, however, irritated me because it was precisely the opposite of the thoughtfulness shown by the Bronte scholars. It read as if it were tossed off, the reviewer seeming to me to be trying for a breezy style with a “look at me, how clever I am” tone designed to draw attention to herself and not the book. I’m not going to link to it. Trust me, it’s not worth the 30 seconds it would take to absorb. And it’s not so horrible that it would provide a juicy, guilty pleasure of a read. It’s just…well–I rarely use this word–dumb.
It appeared in a publication whose name rhymes with Historical Novel Society. Ahem. As to the reviewer’s name, uh-uh, not going to give it out here. If she’s an aspiring novelist herself, why should I give her the publicity?
First, she couldn’t even be bothered to get the protagonist’s name right. She kept referring to him as “Jack.” Who is this Jack of whom she speaks, I wondered. In Sloane Hall, the protag is John. John Doyle. Maybe Ms. Reviewer wanted to communicate how chummy she was with Mr. Doyle by referring to him as Jack? But never, in all my own imaginings, did I think of him as a “Jack,” and I’m the author. If anyone was on close terms with him, it’s the one who dreamed him up–uh, moi! Why did she take this liberty with a character she clearly didn’t bother to get to know and actually didn’t care for that much? Perhaps it was her attempt at a wink at the reader? If so, it was silly, succeeding in making her look foolish to readers who bother perusing the book’s blurbs and to her editors, after I complained. And I did.
As to that complaint… the review went online recently, and I notified the editors to let them know of this mistake. They then changed references to “Jack” back to “John.” Since they won’t remove the review entirely, I followed up with a request that they keep the error in the review–at least that might alert observant readers to the reviewer’s carelessness.
Second, she telegraphs her disdain for the gestalt of the book in her first sentence: “Sternberg’s dubious decision to set the plot of Jane Eyre in the US in the 1920s, with a gender switch, is hard to understand.”
Well, yes, Ms. Reviewer, it appears it was certainly beyond your comprehension. Perhaps when you discovered this, you should have asked your editors to reassign the book.
The next few paragraphs are a quick summary of the book with a conclusion that translating Eyre into the “argot” of the Jazz Age was too “jarring.” Well, I guess it was for her, especially if she thought I was writing in an “argot” to begin with.
Transplanting Jane Eyre into the Jazz Age, of course, isn’t really a shock to readers who appreciate the melodrama of both periods. But the fact that this reviewer thought it was jarring demonstrates her narrow outlook, her inability to appreciate retellings, and again makes one wonder why she didn’t just say to her editor, “You know, I have a hard time with this kind of leap. Give this to someone else. I can’t be fair.” I’m not asking that everyone like retellings, but I do think if you have a hard time with them, you shouldn’t be reviewing them.
Last but hardly least, this review appeared in a journal devoted to historical fiction, as noted above. Sloane Hall was heavily researched. Yet Ms. Reviewer couldn’t be bothered to utter one comment about the background of the book, or its coverage of a tumultuous time in Hollywood’s history few outside the industry know much about (beyond the introduction of the first feature-length talkie, The Jazz Singer). I would have thought the historical accuracy of the book might be something a historical fiction journal might insist their reviewers comment on.
Anyway, after the review appeared, I just shrugged it off after venting to a friend or two, and then enjoyed the comments from other reviewers. As I’ve said, I don’t raise a ruckus over a bad review. It happens. Readers’ tastes vary.
But now, this review is available online, and readers might find it more easily than the lovely and more thoughtful ones I’ve mentioned, written by reviewers who actually took time and care with their comments. So, for those who’d like to read more than silly snark about Sloane Hall, here are some snippets from my favorites:
- “Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” — The Bronte Blog (This is such a lovely review that I’m including the link to it here.)
- “Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Katherine Peterson, Fresh Fiction
- “An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Carolyne Van Der Meer, Bronte Studies journal, September 2011 (A PDF of this full review is available at my website’s books page here.)
For those who’d like to judge for themselves, here’s the book on Amazon.