Review | New novels take old favorites for a spin


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Literary retellings can be either lighthearted fan fiction or classics in their own right, running the gamut from Jean Rhys’s brilliant “Wide Sargasso Sea,” inspired by “Jane Eyre,” to Seth Grahame-Smith’s pulpy “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

Readers can find different tones in this spring’s crop of retellings, too. The three novels here include a powerful glimpse of ancient Greece in “Elektra,” by Jennifer Saint; a dark inversion of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in “Darling Girl,” by Liz Michalski; and a wild feminist take on fairy tales in “How to Be Eaten,” by Maria Adelmann.

“Elektra” starts a bit slowly. After all, Saint (also the author of 2021’s “Ariadne”) has to introduce three intense women with complicated backstories: Clytemnestra, wife of warrior Agamemnon; their daughter, Elektra, who seeks to escape the curse on her family’s house; and Cassandra, a Trojan princess whose prophesies are largely ignored. Explaining the various relationships, battlefields and ancient traditions takes time but proves useful. If you were ever confused after learning about these characters and their stories in school, you won’t be once “Elektra” speeds up and dives into the action.

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Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” the trilogy of Greek tragedies that features all three women (though they appear in other ancient stories, too), contains as many murders as a season of “The Sopranos.” Saint’s take on her source material is serious and forthright. She doesn’t minimize the violence and aggression between opposing societies Mycenae and Troy, but she makes space to highlight how the historical systems affect women in different positions, and how their sometimes-dark deeds underscore their need for change. Although Clytemnestra’s sister, the famous Helen of Troy, makes a few appearances, the real action in “Elektra” belongs to schemers and dreamers.

There’s plenty of scheming and dreaming in Michalski’s “Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan,” as well. Protagonist Holly Darling is the granddaughter of Wendy, the girl whose life was changed by meeting Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Holly, whose mother founded a luxury skin-care line, is on the cusp of making that brand’s coveted “Pixie Dust” into a global bestseller when she’s notified of an emergency involving her daughter, Eden. That crisis will upend her deal’s closure and jeopardize the life of her handsome and talented son, Jack.

It’s tough to decide how much to reveal about this book, because one if its strengths lies in how masterfully the author twists Barrie’s ideas. Peter, Tinkerbell and the Captain are all here, but they’re not exactly the characters you remember, and the setting is far darker. In this world, people steal from the sick to maintain youth, fairies shuffle around looking like unwashed goths, and dreams can quickly turn into nightmares. But Michalski’s writing moves light as a specter between moments of pain and action, keeping readers breathless in an enchanted race to find out who will receive the true gift: ordinary mortal existence.

Adelmann isn’t the first modern author to take on old-fashioned fairy tales, but her spins on “Bluebeard,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” in “How to Be Eaten” have to be some of the most inventive. The conceit: Bernice, Ruby, Ashlee, Gretel and Raina have been invited to group sessions by their therapist, Will. Fortified by coffee and store-bought cookies, they each tell their story, although not without plenty of intragroup commentary.

Bernice details her affair with and escape from Bluebeard, here a tech billionaire whose pride in his distinctive furnishings conceals grotesque habits. Ruby won’t take off her nasty, matted fur coat regardless of the weather, while Ashlee’s reality-TV engagement introduces a Prince Charming whose post-marriage habits verge on the slovenly. Gretel insists that she and her brother found a candy house in the woods, but it’s possible they were simply taken in by an abusive neighborhood woman. And Raina? Well, Raina’s help from someone she calls “Little Man” results in her life’s work, but the scenario isn’t playing out the way she had planned.

Michael Dirda reviews five fairy-tale books

Each narrative has a strangeness heightened by twists and modern details, including the couture cake Bluebeard has delivered to Bernice’s house, Gretel’s lifelong eating disorder and Ashlee’s constant drunkenness while participating in “The One” TV show. Adelmann wants us to reconsider stories we think we know inside-out and see the inequity and terror we’ve ingested from fairy tales. Her most fiendish trick may be one that she shows to the reader long before the characters learn it — an important reminder not to take anything at face value.

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Saint, Michalski and Adelmann share a certain feminist outlook in these three literary retellings. And while their perspectives vary, they all focus more on how women learn to live their lives rather than on the wrongs they have endured. That’s not to say the authors shy away from characters who do wrong, rather that, in these books, built on other books, new possibilities for old stories create unique paths for historical characters.

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