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jane steele book coverReviewed by Cal Cleary

While all authors are influenced by the stories they read and love, there was a brief period where “mash-up” literature, rewriting those public domain influences with modern genre elements added, became surprisingly popular. 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (soon to be a major motion picture) may have kicked off the trend in the mainstream, leading to a small glut of mash-ups both monstrous and erotic, but the basic idea has been around for a long time. My first encounter was with Sharon Shinn’s 2002 novel Jenna Starborn, a sci-fi retelling of Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre that was inventive and interesting, but basically a straightforward retelling of the classic story with different set dressing and modern language. So, when I saw yet another retelling of Jane Eyre in a different period with different genre elements, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, I – a longtime fan of Brontë‘s bildungsroman – was intrigued. How would Faye approach the oft-repeated material?

Interestingly, it is not quite a mash-up or a straight-retelling…though Faye hews unfortunately close to the original in plot. However, the premise of Jane Steele remains gripping, to me: Jane Steele is a well-off young girl orphaned at a young age and sent to a rough boarding school, who eventually discovers the book Jane Eyre, which is what inspires her to tell her story and to reflect on her relationship with the text. Except Jane’s struggle to mature and come into her own as a moral woman is transferred onto the narrative of someone who is not many steps removed from a serial murderer, a woman who kills semi-casually and with little compunction about the body count she racks up beyond the possibility of punishment or rejection by her peers.

Because the story hews so close to Brontë‘s text, however, an interesting question develops: How trustworthy a narrator is Jane Steele? And the number of coincidences between the narratives are striking – Steele’s love interest borrows the name of Eyre’s eventual home; Steele’s school is clearly named after Eyre’s; both hinge on a shocking late-story twist revealing something hitherto unknown about their family; the structure is nearly identical – but the differences are striking. Set nearly a century after Brontë‘s classic, Steele’s story is rife with ideas of power and sexuality. Where Eyre wrestled with issues of class and religion, Steele’s story is tied more directly to sex and violence. In the most clever use of the link between the books, Jane is terrorized by a young relation in whose house she stays after the death of her father, but rather than the terror being based on class, it is here based on sexuality.

It’s an interesting idea, and Jane Steele doesn’t lack for more strong ideas. That said, I don’t think the borrowed narrative experiment fully works overall; merely putting a lampshade on the similarities by having the narrator remark on them doesn’t fully work, and the story doesn’t do enough with the idea of Jane shaping the narrative to match her heroine’s (or finding linkages between the two Janes) to justify the conceit. Its eventual conclusion as it swings into mystery mode, with long swaths of exposition laying out all the secret histories at play, largely fell flat for me, a timely shift from gothic to pulp that nevertheless never managed to hold my interest. Faye has a captivating character in Jane Steele and her strong writing makes the book fly by, but it never quite escapes the shadow of its influences.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Comical Librarian, and you can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.