I’ve read some modern re-tellings of classics that have just fallen flat. Sometimes classics are named classics because they are indeed just that: stories that transcend time. They shape our culture and understanding of the past. They also help us shape our future and in particular the way authors and readers write and engage with novels. I felt a bit skeptical about Corrie Garrett’s novel because I wasn’t sure how it could work. Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, has also never been a favorite of mine. In fact, I am not a huge Austen fan in general. I do, however, love Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot.
There are aspects of Garrett’s novel that are truly innovative and I do believe these innovations make the story of Austen’s novel accessible to a younger contemporary audience. It is set in 2016 in Southern California. It is a time in history that I believe many people will be talking about for decades to come, the U.S. election that saw Donald Trump come to power as U.S. president. In this time there are three Mexican sisters (some of the family is undocumented) who end up crossing paths with political royalty so to speak.
The love story of Darcy and Elisa mimics that of Austen’s original novel. At times, I felt the characterization was a little bit forced, but then also reading over Austen’s original novel I actually felt the same way about her writing. Darcy is one of the most annoying love interests I have read in a novel. I am infuriated every time by his actions whether it is in Garrett’s retelling or Austen’s original. Who knows though, maybe that was Austen’s point all along? But what I find even more infuriating is that many readers love Darcy’s character to the point where they say he is their literary fantasy boyfriend!
Tied up in this tempestuous love affair are the discussions of immigration, conservative politics, and Trump. From the beginning of the novel Darcy and Elisa identity as politically conservative. Yet their conservatism does not exactly meet eye to eye. Elisa’s parents and one of her sisters are undocumented immigrants in U.S. The family overstayed their visa and are now under the DACA program. A program that helps undocumented people, in particular children, to have a legal and safe path to permanent residency and/or citizenship in the United States. Elisa is concerned that if Trump is elected the DACA program will be revoked and her family will be at risk of deportation. Elisa struggles with standing up for her family and other Latinx people in the U.S. and falling into the trap of the model immigrant: someone who doesn’t step out of line or say the wrong thing.
Talking about immigration is hard. People are often unwilling to see different sides to stories or show compassion for the people hurt by immigration policies. Immigration has always been a concern for me because I am immigrant myself living in Switzerland and my partner has a South American passport meaning we have a mixed cultural/passport marriage. The misconceptions around the world from the general population have about how ‘easy’ it is to emigrate are sometimes laughable. And governments often do not correct these misconceptions because it makes it easier for them to create even more damaging and hardline policies surrounding immigration. Immigration is extremely tough and honestly, people need to show more compassion. Until you have given up your culture, language, lifestyle, climate, food, family, and friends you might want to just sit down and listen.
Garrett’s novel tries to show how undocumented immigrants feel about being undocumented along with the fears they have about their safety and security in the U.S. On the other side, she also shows people who are less understanding and who buy into the negative stereotypes about immigrants. In this regard, her discussions are balanced, but at times I felt a bit too safe.
Moreover, the discussions about Trump were also too safe. Trump’s mistreatment of women and sexual harassment history were completely overlooked in the novel. I know it is difficult to bring up sexual assault and misogyny as it probably means the novel has to be extended and the storyline has to be adapted to it, yet I felt this omission made it look like the characters of the novel were living under a rock. I don’t live in the U.S. and I was still aware of those allegations.
To be honest, I feel this book would be great to study for high school students and I think it could be a great starting point for people to have discussions about immigration. However, in order to do it correctly, I think the novel should be supplemented with other immigrant stories and a history of the United State’s immigration policies and attitudes towards immigrants.
I can see this novel sparking great book club discussions, but it also has the potential to be volatile based on the content. However, if you are brave readers then this can be a great thought provoking novel. What classic retellings do you love? As always, share the reading love.
Note: this novel was accessed through Netgalley for review purposes.