When my author friend Jane George loaned me one of her favorite books, Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James, I had no idea what I was in for.
“Hard to categorize. A ghost story. A love story. A mystery.”
She’s a discerning reader, so I knew she wouldn’t steer me wrong. Even so, I found much more than I expected. But first let me back up a bit.
I’ll admit that I’ve read Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca more than once. The main character (never named) is hopelessly outdated for my modern sensibilities, but still I find the book a compelling read. The dark, gothic backdrop, the web of family secrets and the one thing that saves the characters from drowning in the heaviness – love – have kept this book in continuous print since 1938.
Clearly, I’m not the only writer who finds this book compelling. Lost Among the Living is a fantastic tribute to Rebecca, and the same characteristic make this book come alive. It’s the story of a war widow who returns the estate of her husband’s family as a paid companion to find a worn estate of gothic proportions, a ghost (a bit of a Jane Eyre twist, in fact!) and family secrets. She uncovers layers of the past in an attempt to find her way back to the husband she’s afraid she’s lost forever.
It took me more than a couple chapters to catch onto the parallels, despite the fact that the main character is named Jo Manders, and her aunt-in-law/employer (an interesting twist on the Mrs. Danvers character) calls her Manders from the first pages on. For those of you who read Rebecca a while back, Manderley is the name of de Winter’s estate. I could go on about the parallels, but you’ll have more fun discovering them yourself.
The point I want to get at in this post is what St. James has done. In literary fiction, we’ll call this a tribute; in genre fiction, we might call it fan fiction. Either way, the book reads as if Simone St. James has taken a book she loves and used it to explore and rethink its most compelling pieces. In this case, she has surpassed her model… at least in the opinion of this twenty-first century reader.
Riffing off a long-lived classic or best-seller is nothing new. The most popular and successful romance in this kind is, of course, Fifty Shades of Gray, E.L. James’ reworking of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight book. We writers should learn from this example: a storyline that has proven to be compelling is worth more than strong line-by-line writing. Great combinations of story tropes sell, whether they are the “original” or the many, many re-workings that follow.
So, readers, what best-seller do you find compelling, despite its flaws? Do you dare to make it your own?
P.S. I’m teaching a course on taking apart bestsellers and making the stories your own starting September 1. Interested? Read more about it here.