Guilt and Pleasure

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Guilt and Pleasure

Twists on Familiar Classics

Whether it’s a guilty pleasure or a great work, a well-told story of romance sought, found or lost is a joy to read repeatedly and, for some exceptional fans, to be imitated. For the month of love, revisit some enduring page-turners and tales they inspired (check out the movies as well).

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1892)

A young woman is drawn to two men, but with disastrous results. A poor man claims to be the descendant of the aristocratic d’Urbervilles and encourages his eldest daughter to make an acquaintance with a family that has recently taken over the d’Urbervilles family seat and begun using the name. The romantic daughter, Tess, fails to see the deceit and danger in Alec d’Urberville until it’s too late. Later, Tess meets idealistic Angel Clare, with whom she works as a dairymaid and the two eventually marry, but Tess's past with Alec eventually catches up with her.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)

Before Tess there was Bathsheba Everdene, a poor orphan who soon inherits land and wealth. The ambitious Bathsheba attracts the skilled and hardworking Gabriel Oak, but his social status drops as hers rises due to a catastrophic loss of crops. Bathsheba is a success as a farmer, but not in love, as she becomes entangled with one man looking to own her, another who desires her wealth and still another sunk so low by circumstances both he and Bathsheba relegate him to the background.

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2008)
Originally serialized in the British newspaper The Guardian (online and in print), Tamara Drewe is a modern and satiric take on Far from the Madding Crowd in a graphic novel format. Substance abuse, casual sex and their consequences lend a much more tragic element and the main characters are less sympathetic than in Far from the Madding Crowd, but don’t let this stop you from reading Tamara Drewe. That the feckless Tamara doesn’t become a better person after striving for success as a newspaper columnist, plastic surgery that changes her into a beauty, or her washed up rock-star boyfriend walking out her is what a good story is made of.  The film adaption is good too!

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Love triangles figure in a good read, as does the hard-edged, all wrong love interest. Jane has the choice of middle-aged, surly, adulterous and almost bigamist Edward Rochester, or young, good-looking and pious St. John Rivers. Both men are benefactors who fall in love with the plain and quiet Jane, but Jane has inner strength that compels her to live her life on her own terms.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

Written as a prequel to the enduring Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea holds its own in scenery, character development and shear scope. The story begins after Jamaican Emancipation on a now-rundown plantation where Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband, Edward Rochester), her mother Annette and brother Pierre are ostracized by both white and black Jamaicans. Antoinette’s father, an alcoholic who fathered many children with former slaves, squandered his family’s fortune before dying. Annette is the wrong type of creole, being from Martinique, and Pierre’s mental and physical disabilities are said to be due to Cosway family inbreeding.
The family is preyed upon by English men looking to make their fortune in the West Indies, and here lies speculation on the darkest part of Edward Rochester’s story: What is the real story behind Bertha’s madness and her years locked away by Edward? A tale of sex, mores and the tragic effect of suppression, torment and social isolation, Wide Sargasso Sea is a wrenching spin on a classic you won’t want to put down.

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1921)

Noted for its description of late 19th century New York Society, Age of Innocence won its author a Pulitzer. Interpreted with great success in film, Age of Innocence still intrigues with its timeless exploration of social and familiar happiness and one’s desires. Archer Newland, loved by two women, May Welland and her cousin Ellen, Countess Olenski struggles with the choice of being who other’s believe him to be—an upstanding young lawyer whose life is consumed by the same interests as everyone else of his social standing, and what he feels—that he loves a married and scandalous woman and would further disgrace her and himself to be with her.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal (2012)

The opening scene of May and Archer at the opera from The Age of Innocence becomes Adam and Rachel at the synagogue in this version. Friday Seders in the bosom of loving family and quiet walks through The Regent’s Park are evocative of a different time. Both a product of an insular and very old London Jewish community, their adherence to social customs also seem of a different time.  Enter worldly, sexy and famous cousin Ellie, newly arrived from a much reported affair overseas. Safely in love with Rachel, Adam sees her bad girl cousin as someone worthy of sympathy, but as his wedding day with Rachel approaches, Adam’s platonic feelings change, as do Ellie’s. Betrayal, yet again, ensues.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)

Set during the same time period as Age of Innocence, Anna Karenina explores Russian Society’s more nuanced view of sex. Though Archer Newland in Age of Innocence has a history of affairs with married women, openly having an affair would have made him a social pariah. In Anna Karenina, it is only Anna who receives the brunt of social condemnation. Her lover, Count Alexey Kirillovitch Vronsky, on the other hand, is admired for his conquest of a married society woman such as Anna and receives his family’s support of the affair. Other society marriages are detailed in this epic novel, with one wife wishing she, too, could leave her husband and have an affair. Even the jaded Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, who has no love for fallen women, accepts Anna. The tragic ending arises from a rash act following months of jealousy and guilt. 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (2015)

American Anna Benz is socially isolated in her Swiss husband’s hometown near Zurich. Without a driver’s license, the ability to speak much Swiss German or any cultural affinity with the locals, Anna pursues affairs that are not entirely discrete. The author’s homage to Anna Karenina, which has elements of Madame Bovary (boredom in a small town and a bad ending) and Fifty Shades of Grey (graphic sex scenes), features a woman who is also in a loveless marriage with a child not by her husband. Unlike the previously mentioned main characters, Anna Benz is not young, a wallflower, overly taken with romantic fiction, a woman of action or under societal constraints, nor is her husband benign. Under the care of a psychiatrist who argues for Anna gaining control of her life, she continues on a path of self-destruction that destroys others, too.

Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (2005)

Recent transplant Bella Swan and loner Edward Cullen are immediately attracted to each other, but struggle to keep their relationship chaste against Edward’s very old values and dangerous secret. Meanwhile, another perspective love interest may prove less dangerous, but warmer. A teen bestseller consumed by legions of adult fans, Twilight is heavy on supernatural elements, but not campy. A universe of characters unlike any found in a vampire or werewolf story, written before or since, and the intense love triangle of Bella Swan, Jacob Black and Edward Cullen are at the heart of this suspenseful quadrilogy.

Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James (2011)

Newly graduated from college, Anastasia Steele soon develops an unconventional relationship with slightly older, but worldly billionaire, Christian Grey. The secretive Grey and the sheltered Ana attract a cloud of malice and misadventure soon ensues. A supportive but emotionally reserved father and a self-involved and distant mother unaware of Grey’s dark nature are some parallels to the Twilight series, but, full of sexy badinage and a little S&M, Fifty Shades is no teen coming-of-age story. The film adaptation of the final book in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, Fifty Shade Freed is due to be released Feb. 14, and many fans of the films and books know of its origins as a twist on the bestselling Twilight series. Coming full circle, Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a favorite of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey, but Christian Grey compares himself to Alec, Tess’s rapist and catalyst of hardship and suffering.