Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

In this compelling retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, high school senior Esti Legard moves to the island of Cariba, in the West Indies, to begin theater studies at Manchicay School. Once there, she struggles to break free of the shadow of her late father, a legendary actor, in order to be recognized as a legitimate actress in her own right. During tryouts for Romeo and Juliet, Esti hears the seductive voice of a mysterious man–known as Alan–helping her through the audition. Unknown to anyone, she begins meeting privately with him at the theater although he refuses to reveal himself, and she performs in the play under his tutelage. When Esti shares with a classmate that she has been hearing Alan's voice, the news spreads, and the superstitious islanders suspect he is a type of ghost–a jumbee. However, Alan's passion for Shakespeare wins Esti over, and she begins falling for him, unsure of whether she has feelings for a man or a ghost. Further complicating matters is Esti's growing attraction to a family friend turned bad boy, Rafe Solomon. When mysterious accidents befall the set of the play, everyone, including Esti, begins to suspect Alan is behind them. In her quest for the truth, she uncovers shocking secrets about her father and the island.


Genre: romance, gothic

Rating: 4/5

Note: #1 for Modern Retellings of Classics Challenge (The Phantom of the Opera)

This book. I don't know how to rate it actually. Let me preface by saying that The Phantom of the Opera has been one of my three favorite books since high school. It's one book I've read over and over. I love Erik in all his insane glory. The issues I have with the book are really not the fault of Keyes at all. She does a beautiful job of staying true to the original, and that in and of itself creates its own set of problems.

First off, this book is set in the Caribbean and is exotic and mysterious in its beautiful descriptions of island life. The setting is perfect for evoking the supernatural and mystery without over stretching to become unbelievable. Esti, the updated Christine, is actually intelligent rather than the bubble headed Christine of the original. Keyes makes Alan, the Erik substitute, completely innocent of murdering anyone even though he is occasionally threatening. Unfortunately, while that makes him a nicer and redeemable person, it also defangs him and takes away the reasoning that the original gave for Erik not being acceptable. Erik, for all his brilliance, is a murderer and it is understandable that he would have that issue even if people did get over his looks. In taking murder away from Alan, there's no good reason that Esti eventually goes with Rafe other than that Alan is physically ugly. It makes Esti look worse in her intelligence for choosing the pretty boy over the artist.

And then there's Rafe, who as the Raoul stand in is already set up to be hated. Raoul was never any competition for the brilliance that was Erik. He was a fop and a pretty boy and rather vapid. Rafe is a womanizer who makes no bones about the fact that he finds women good for one thing. He's also just as bad at trying to control Esti as Alan is, only in a more aggressive way. He has anger issues. He was severely unlikable, which while reflecting the original, doesn't make as much sense since Esti is more intelligent than Christine and seems less shallow so her "love" for Rafe just seems like bad judgment. And then there's Esti's mother who inexplicably has no problem with her daughter being with the island manslut as long as that means she's away from Alan. She even becomes enraged when Esti toys with Rafe's emotions, even though it's made very clear he's slept with most of the girls on the island. Rafe also digs his hole deeper by condemning in Alan the very same behavior that Rafe shows in different ways.

So here's the thing, the character foibles of the original are either glossed over or modified, but in being true to the original, Keyes can't avoid the issues of the original, only change them. Her very success is what sometimes makes you want to strangle Esti and punch Rafe. Rafe doesn't deserve Esti in the end as he's not the better man. Esti is selfish and allows physical love override emotional. Alan is again left alone even though in this book his crimes are even less deserving of desertion. Yet that is all true to the spirit of the original.

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