Michelle's Reviews > New Girl

New Girl by Paige Harbison
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Feb 19, 12

bookshelves: arc, contemporary, gothic, netgalley, romance, young-adult, retelling, mystery-thriller
Read in February, 2012

Retellings are so hit or miss for me; I LOVE them when they are done well, and nothing gets under my skin faster than one poorly executed. Retellings have to have a certain amount of respect of and appreciation for the original work, but also the ability to bring in something new or different. If the author of a retelling venerates the original work too much the retelling is incapable of being anything more than a mediocre copy of the original. If the new author has too little respect for the original it often comes off as an insulting imitation. (Parodies not included in this assessment; they are something completely different!) I think that Paige Harbison struck just the perfect note between the two with New Girl. In fact, I would go so far as to say this retelling is better than the original.

I was pleasantly surprised by much of what Harbison has done in New Girl. I feel like she played the conventions of the gothic-mystery/romance/suspense genre to a tee while simultaneously subverting them. New Girl, like Rebecca, has that sort of stiflingly closed setting, and that slightly jumpy, tightly wound, anticipatory tone. 'New Girl', like Mrs. de Winter, remains nameless and placeless to the other characters in the story except in her relationship to Rebecca. They both, at least on the surface, are easily moved and swayed by the actions and decisions of others. Max, like Maxim, is bullied by Becca and frustratingly silent on his true feelings for 'new girl' or Becca for entirely too long. Dana, like Mrs. Danvers, is nutty in her devotion to Becca. And Becca, like Rebecca, is cruel, manipulative and toxic to everyone around her. There is a costume ball where the same dress is worn, there is infidelity, there are threats of an impending pregnancy, and there is a boat at the bottom of murky waters. Here, though, is where the similarities end.

In her 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Forster said that du Maurier was disappointed that so many people missed what Rebecca was really all about: the relationship between a man who was powerful and a woman who was not. I guess I missed her point as well, because I never really got that from Rebecca. Yes, Mrs. de Winter is utterly powerless, but I think she gave up a lot of her power. She tossed it away to others by refusing to communicate in any real way with her husband and by accepting at face value things she ought to have questioned. I certainly never thought Maxim had any power - that all went to Rebecca or Mrs. Danvers. Which leads me to what I loved so much about New Girl: the upending of the conventions. I think that, unlike du Maurier, Harbison makes quite a few excellent points, and does so with complex, nuanced, entertaining characters.

At first New Girl comes across as incredibly passive in her decision to go to Manderly - so much so that the plot is almost unbelievable for a modern girl - it took the gothic tone to suspend my disbelief. However, the further I read the more it looked like unreliable narration. She really wanted out of the rut she was in while in Florida, but was scared to leave her comfort zone. It was easier to blame it on her parents, taking the choice out of her hands. She concedes a lot to Dana, but it is out of compassion, not fear. She does form a romantic attachment to Max, but it doesn't become the center of her life. By the end of the book, she earns her name by no longer passively ceding her power to others - she is no longer a Mrs. de Winter.

Becca, likewise, is no Rebecca. She was vile and cruel, manipulative and scary, and sick. It is, oh, so clear that she is mentally ill and really needs some help. After being in Becca's head, I understand why she acted the way she did, even if I could not excuse it. I didn't like her but I believed her. Dana is even more amazing - I both like and believe her. The cardboard character of Mrs. Danvers is torn to pieces as Dana's story is revealed. Max is the only character with whom I was not completely satisfied. He let Becca just steamroll him, and he really should have done something about it. I never really found a believable reason for why he didn't stop her.

I had a few minor problems, such as weird pop culture references (Wow, can someone please tell me why Titantic is so popular with YA writers?!?!) and an inconsistent portrayal of a residential high school - sometimes realistic and sometimes inconceivably off. (Trust me on this, there is NO WAY the kids didn't already know how to sneak out of the building pre-Becca. Just not possible.) However, New Girl was just such a strong story overall that they sort of faded away while reading. I enjoyed it as a retelling of Rebecca, but I enjoyed it even more as its own story.

Thanks to HarlequinTeen and NetGalley for the ARC.

Blogged at Chronicles of a Book Evangelist
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