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What’s old is new

26 Jun

I am a fan of re-tellings, but with everyone that I do read, there are twenty more that I’m not aware of. It’s a question of the chicken or the sense that I ask myself, if I know that this is a re-telling, should I go back and read (or re-read) the original story so that I’m more prepared to understand the subtleties of the re-telling or let it be? Of course many I don’t realize until after, like Exit, Pursued by a Bear is based on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. I’ve got my The Complete Works of William Shakespeare queued up after having discovered the inspiration.

And this newest post, about Samantha Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison. It wasn’t until I was booktalking the book to an English teacher as we trade our recent reads that she said, hey, that sounds an awful lot like Hawthorne’s short story, I think it’s something daughter. Curious. So I looked it up and downloaded a PDF and tore through the twenty-page short story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1800s. Why yes, this was absolutely a re-telling and Mabry’s title is taken from the short story to boot. There’s a girl who is full of poison, there is a boy who likes her. She breaths on an insect and that insect dies. And of course there are a few differences like the setting (Italy versus Puerto Rico) and adults versus teenagers, but I would have never known had I not talked about the book with someone more widely read than I. And I feel bummed about that, that sometimes I’m unaware of the allusions, but I try to convince myself that you can’t possibly read everything to know where the inspiration came from. That makes me feel (slightly) better. I think about the statistics that tell readers that it’s just not physically possible to read every book that’s published and again feel (slightly) better.

So, do you read Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter first and then Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison? Do you read only what you’re comfortable with (a short story from the 1800s or a YA novel from the 2010s)? Do you read what fell into your lap first and then read the other? Well, I guess that’s up to you. I know I feel better having discovered and read Hawthorne’s text to see where Mabry’s inspiration came from, the question is, with teen readers of Mabry’s book want to read the dense short story?

I enjoyed Hawthorne’s story for its more gothic appeal– the beautiful and mysterious daughter of a mad scientist who many men pine after but not many men have seen. The star-crossed love as Giovanni discovers his love for Beatrice and realizes he himself has become poisonous as she already is. Should you cure it or let it be? And to what extent will the overbearing father infiltrate himself? Ultimately both Beatrice and Giovanni must live with the tragic consequences. This is in contrast to the somewhat lighter novel. While there are still gothic elements including descriptions of the girls as they wash ashore as well as the mythological stories that the women on the island tell about the villa at the end of the street, it’s juxtaposed with the narcissism of Lucas, the son of the hotel billionaire on the island. Lucas doesn’t learn the language, he just uses the local girls and discards them until he meets Marisol. Then Marisol goes missing and messages are slipped under his door from the mysterious girl from behind the walls of the villa– Isabel. Will the resolution of this novel align with the short story? You should read them both to find out!

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