Classics Retold Un-Classically: Two Odyssey “Retellings” to avoid.

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September 19, 2013 by Heidi

Classics RetoldSo I’m guessing at this point that you’ve all noticed my complete and utter failure to keep up with my posting schedule.  Sometimes life takes over, and sometimes–no matter how much I love you all–I just can’t make myself eek out a post.  After reading two retellings of The Odyssey that I absolutely detested, I haven’t been reading period.  They killed it for me.  At least for the time being.  In the interest of saving all of you hopeful, bright-eyed young readers from the same terrible fate, I present to you Odyssey Fail Mini-reviews:

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The Rathbones by Janice ClarkTitle: The Rathbones [Goodreads]
Author: Janice Clark
[Website|Twitter]
Narrator: Erin Spencer, Cassandra Campbell, Malcolm Campbell, Gabrielle De Cuir
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Historical, Magical Realism, Gothic, Retelling (only not really)
Published: August 8th, 2013 by Random House Audio
Format: Audiobook; 14 hrs, 14 min.
Source: Purchased (BUYERS REMORSE!)
Spoilers!:  Okay so I’m going to put on my ranty pants which have a spoiler warning sewed across the butt because sometimes when a girl complains she’s got to get specific!

A gothic, literary adventure set in New England, Janice Clark’s haunting debut chronicles one hundred years of a once prosperous and now crumbling whaling family, told by its last surviving member.

Mercy Rathbone, fifteen years old, is the diminutive scion of the Rathbone clan. Her father, the last in the beleaguered dynasty, has been lost at sea for seven years – ever since the last whale was seen off the coast of Naiwayonk, Connecticut. Mercy’s memories of her father grow dimmer each day, and she spends most of her time in the attic hideaway of her reclusive uncle Mordecai, who teaches her the secrets of Greek history and nautical navigation through his collection of specimens and moldering books. But when a strange, violent visitor turns up one night, Mercy and Mordecai are forced to flee the crumbling mansion and set sail on a journey that will bring them deep into the haunted history of the Rathbone family, and the reasons for its undoing.

As Mercy and Mordecai sail from island to island off the Connecticut coast, encountering dangers and mysteries, friends and foes, they untangle the knots of the Rathbone story, discovering secrets long encased in memory.  They learn the history of the family’s founder and patriarch, Moses Rathbone, and the legendary empire he built of ships staffed with the sons of his many, many wives. Sons who stumbled in their father’s shadow, distracted by the arrival of the Stark sisters, a trio of “golden” girls, whose mesmerizing beauty may have sparked the Rathbone’s decline.

From the depths of the sea to the lonely heights of the widow’s walk; from the wisdom of the worn Rathbone wives to the mysterious origins of a sinking island, Mercy and Mordecai’s journey will bring them to places they never thought possible.  But will they piece together a possible future from the mistakes of the past, or is the once great  family’s fate doomed to match that of the whales themselves?

Inspired by The Odyssey by way of Edgar Allan Poe and Moby DickThe Rathbones is an ambitious, mythic, and courageous tour de force that marks the debut of a dazzling new literary voice.

Okay so how many of you read that blurb and were completely swept away with a notion of a Gothic novel inspired by The Odyssey with shades of Poe and Moby Dick?  Show of hands?  *Raises mine.*  Well too bad.  I suppose that yes, on the surface The Rathbones is all of those things.  In fact, I will admit that the book isn’t even badly written–it is just very much not a book for me.  Much like my previous unfortunate experience this year with Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, I simply found the interpersonal relationships and treatment of sex too disturbing for me to fall into the story or become attached to the characters.  It seemed that each tale uncovered of the Rathbone clan on Mercy’s journey is more disgusting and gut-turning than the last, and in the end I found myself so taken out of the narrative because of this that I failed to see the story as any sort of epic journey that one might expect when working from The Odyssey.

Points for The Rathbones as a retelling of The Odyssey:  

  • Father has been missing at sea for 10 years.
  • Suitors becoming very interested in abandoned wife due to family fortune.
  • Woman on an island Mercy decides to call Cersie, despite the fact that this is not her name.
  • Within sight of home when blown off course.

That’s about it.  I realize the term “odyssey” has come to stand for any sort of epic journey, and The Rathbones certainly contains a journey, but I wouldn’t call it strictly inspired by that epic poem.  Admittedly, the tale does share that certain frustrating, fruitless, and redundant air of the original–perhaps inspired by its weaknesses rather than its strengths.  We are unable to care about Mercy’s journey to find her lost father and brother because each tale we hear of this family paints them as increasingly horrible.  A horrible and disturbing past filled with women kidnapped and passed from bed to bed, incest, ‘wives’ who are cast off once used up, etc.  The continued talk of women spreading their legs over and over again, the mother who sleeps with every man who comes to her door–the same mother who is literally fucked to death in front of her daughter by her father when they know she is watching is so freaking disturbing I was completely turned off and unable to invest in any sort of story.  Particularly when Mercy, instead of striving to get out of this life and world plays into it.

I am sure there is an audience for The Rathbones.  As I said, it is well written, however, the content and my inability to count it as a true Odyssey retelling left me hating it with an ire and passion that can only arise from a wasted Audible credit (I will hopefully be able to exchange).

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Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia BlockTitle: Love in the Time of Global Warming [Goodreads]
Author: Francesca Lia Block
[Website]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Apocolyptic, Retelling, Magical Realism
Published: August 27th, 2013 by Henry Holt and Co. BFYR
Format: Hardcover, 240 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher.
Spoilers!:  Still got my ranty pants on, you know what that means!

Seventeen-year-old Penelope (Pen) has lost everything—her home, her parents, and her ten-year-old brother. Like a female Odysseus in search of home, she navigates a dark world full of strange creatures, gathers companions and loses them, finds love and loses it, and faces her mortal enemy.

In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.

I know there are many Francesca Lia Block fans out there, however, this was my first experience with the author myself.  I apologize to her many fans, but strait up–this book was a freaking mess.  Unlike The Rathbones, it was not (in my opinion) well written or constructed, but also unlike The Rathbones it was slightly more successful in being a retelling of The Odyssey.  I say slightly because I’m not convinced FLB knew what she was going for here–and boy does it show.  We begin with a character, Pen, who aptly shares a name with Odysseus’ abandoned wife from the original.  She is surviving alone after a recent–completely nonsensical apocalypse, and sets out on an epic journey to find her family.  Initially the journey seems to be a bit of a checklist of Odyssey stops–cyclops (check!), lotus eaters (check!), sorceress (check!), sirens (check!), but FLB’s story quickly becomes muddled between the story she is trying to tell and the story she is trying to retell.  Quite frankly, the two didn’t really go together and it shows.

Whenever a story overtly acknowledges its source material–aka in Love in the Time of Global Warming (and excuse me for non sequitur aside but can I point out how the Marquez title indicates that once again our author has no idea what she’s trying to do with this book?) the characters have a copy of The Odyssey and are very familiar with the story–I feel like the retelling is bound to fail.  For Penelope and her companions, The Odyssey becomes a sort of guide.  They begin seeing their path as it relates to Odysseus’, but when at some point FLB completely derails from this retelling angle to tell her own unlikely apocalypse story, the guidebook no longer makes sense.  I see an inherent flaw in acknowledging the story you are retelling while retelling it–in my mind this provides you with less wiggle room and creative licence, and in LitToGW it snowballs into confusion.

Many retelling of The Odyssey are quite short, and this one is no exception, but that also made Pen’s tale very muddled and unfeeling.  So many characters are introduced in such a short page count that we are unable to care about any of them.  On top of which, it somehow became a LGBT crusade?  Again, FLB’s addition of the LGBT component made her story seem more schizophrenic and uncertain of itself rather than making the strong positive statement about LGBT people that she intended.  I strongly feel that had the author stepped back and really considered the story she wanted to tell, rather than throwing everything in one bucket (seriously, this book feels like it was pantsed), it could have been cleaner, smoother, and just plain better.  As is, Love in the Time of Global Warming is, as stated, a mess, and I can’t really recommend it to anyone.

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So there you have it folks, not the most auspicious first Classics Retold reviews from me, but I promise you I have had better experiences with others!  However, The Penolopiad and Cold Mountain may not make the cut due to my sad inability to handle this sort of heartbreak again.

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5 comments »

  1. I am SO glad you read Block’s novel, Heidi! I’ve been hearing a lot about it, but no matter how much I hear, I keep having this feeling that it just isn’t for me. And it definitely isn’t. Rathbones, too, sounds phenomenal, but, again, not like my kind of tale. I’m so sorry you had to read these disappointments, Heidi, but thanks for taking one for the team! These really are remarkable reviews! :)

    Also, I totally understand about not being in the mood for reading after these two. Ironically, I just read four five-star novels back-to-back and am now in such major book hangover that I don’t want to pick up anything. I just know it won’t compare and with college applications looming in front of me, I’m practically hiding under my covers in denial of life, so I totally get the busy schedule! I’m going to be practically MIA on the blog over the next few weeks myself, so no worries. I hope you pick up something fabulous soon! 😀

  2. UGH I am SO disappointed (though not as much as you, as you wasted your time) because these both sounded so so amazing. I was especially intrigued by The Rathbones and after you told me to stay away I went to GR and read some reviews and…WOW. Like..mind blown and not in the good way WOW. Also, ew.

    I hope that some of the other retellings you are picking up end up being AWESOME!!

  3. […] Classics Retold Un-Classically: Two Odyssey Retellings to Avoid […]

  4. Too bad these were disappointing! I think Francesca Lia Block is either your kind of author or not; there’s no in between. My sister loved her growing up, and still has been disappointed with her more recent novels.

  5. Angie says:

    That’s too bad that both the retellings you have read so far have been bummers! I am doing OZ and I read a good one and a bad one. Can’t wait to read about your other retellings!

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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