Book Report: Our highly scientific analysis of a book, from the characters to the writing style to the swoon. See More...

Is This a Henry James Film?

Erin reviews Francine Prose's The Turning, a modern-day retelling of The Turn of the Screw.  And is probably going to end up spoiling all of y'all for The Turn of the Screw.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Is This a Henry James Film?

BOOK REPORT for The Turning by Francine Prose

Cover Story: Almost Spooky
BFF Charm: Nay
Swoonworthy Scale: 0
Talky Talk: Epistolary Expectations, Unfulfilled
Bonus Factors: Henry James, The House On the Hill
Relationship Status: You're the Billy Lewis To My Reva Shane

Cover Story: Almost Spooky

This cover was pretty close to being spooky, I think.  I like the big, dark house alone on the water, even if it bears no relationship to the actual house in the story.  But man, the book title splashed all over it kind of ruined the spooky effect.  Maybe if the title was in letters rising from the mist? I can't tell if that'd be spooky or cheesy, actually.  But that's why my job isn't to design book covers!  The people who have that job should do a better job!  I can barely do my own job!  I don't have time to be helping them with theirs!

The Deal:

Have you read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw?  Do you care to?  If the answer to those questions are no and yes, respectively, you probably want to stop reading this review.

It's okay.

I'll wait.

Still here?  Okay.  If you have read The Turn of the Screw, then you know how this story goes (and if you haven't read TTotS but also don't care, then you don't care how the story goes!).  A young governess is hired to look after two totally spooky kids in a big manor house far from civilization.  While there, she starts to believe she's being haunted by the ghosts of a governess past and said governess's child-molesting boyfrend.  Things boil until one of the kids is killed - by a ghost?  by the governess?  that's up to you to decide. - which is tragic, but only because both of the kids didn't die.  Hate those little shits.

The Turning begins and spins out much the same way.  17 year old Jack is nervous but excited about his summer job, taking care of two kids on a mostly-deserted island. Leaving his girlfriend Sophie for two months won't be easy, but they have a plan to write lots of letters to each other.  But as soon as Jack shows up on the island, he knows something is weird.  His charges, Miles and Flora, are creepily well-dressed and spookily polite, never wanting to run around and act up and color walls and, I don't know, shit on the carpet like most kids do.  How tedious and awful that must be for Jack.  Flora is really into botony, so she spends a lot of the summer boring Jack with Latin names.  The cook/housekeeper/surrogate mom, Mrs Gross (yeah, pretty much everyone has the same name in this book), is really nice but is kind of mopey all the time about her dead husband. Miles may or may not be evil.  And, of course, there's the fact that Jack sees ghosts walking around, all how do ya do, like it's a damn Three Men and a Baby film set.

As Jack becomes even more isolated, he becomes ever more convinced that everyone's out to get him.  But is he right?  Are there really ghosts haunting the island?  Or are the only ghosts the ones in Jack's subconscious?

I mean, that's a rhetorical question.  The ghosts are totally real in this book.  Sorry if you wanted to, like, get all deep and think about metaphors and shizz. 

BFF Charm: Nay

I wouldn't give Jack my BFF charm, which is fine, because I'm not really supposed to like him.  Or at least I don't think I'm supposed to like him.  Shit.  Am I supposed to like him?  This is just like when one of my friends in college would introduce me to her douchetastical brah boyfriend and I was all, "this is your ironic phase so that you can turn into a better songwriter later, right?" but it always turned out that they were super serious about Chad or Steve and I "wasn't being supportive."  Ugh.  I wish someone would give me a handbook to explain when I'm supposed to think someone is cool.

Anyway, back to my point.  Jack's sullen, whiny, jealous and, you know, INSANE.  So a good BFF he would not make. 

Swoonworthy Scale: 0

Y'all.  Y'ALL.  The Turn of the Screw is NOT a romantic story, and at least in that regard, The Turning does that well.  As Jack becomes increasingly obsessed with his own loneliness, he turns into a total jerkfaced asswad to his girlfriend Sophie.  Plus there's that small part where he's, you know, IN LOVE WITH A GHOST.  Like, he gets ghost boners and shizz.  That is not romantic, y'all.  The only ghost it is appropriate to get a boner over is Patrick Swayze in Ghost and also Patrick Swayze in real life.  Otherwise, CORPOREAL BEINGS ONLY.

Talky Talk: Epistolary Expectations, Unfulfilled

This book is written in epistolary format, with Jack penning (well, type-writing and then printing out, which is just weird) letters to his girlfriend Sophie as well as his dad, from his first day on the island until the, well, inevitable conclusion.  (Or maybe it's an evitable conclusion!)  And I was really bummed because that could have worked SO WELL.  The point of this story is meant to be about the line between reality and fiction, madness and sanity, and it would have been so awesome to see Jack slowly and almost imperceptibly become unstrung.  But it didn't quite work, sad to say.  First, the letters home were too informal.  Epistolary format is great, but it's also tricky, because it can be really hard to make a character sound believable just through letters.  They either sound stilted or too informal, and for me, this book erred too much on the side of the latter.  No one includes paragraphs of dialogue in their letters, because that's unnatural.  Yet Jack did, which pulled me out of the book and sent my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor.

And second, Jack went cray-cray too suddenly.  Maybe it was just because I was expecting it, but for me his insanity didn't have the slow-burning intensity that would have made the book really creepy.

Bonus Factor: Henry James

This probably isn't the nicest-sounding bonus factor, but mostly I just wanted to re-read The Turn of the Screw after reading this book.  Luckily it's nearly Halloween, so it's time to consume all of my favorite spooky stories!

Bonus Factor: The House on the Hill

Look, Fiction Authors of the World:  you guys have been trying to convince me for centuries now that the mysterious and cloud-shrouded lonely house upon the hill is anything other than totally awesome, and IT HAS NEVER WORKED AND IT NEVER WILL.  I long to live in a giant house with a library overlooking a cliff where I don't have to talk to anyone except for the people I pay to be friendly to me.  IT IS MY ONLY DREAM IN LIFE.

Casting Call:

Ezra Miller as Jack

Ezra Miller could add some spice to Jack and bring a complexity to the role.

Relationship Status: You're the Billy Lewis To My Reva Shane

Book, when I was a wee slip of a girl in the 80s, I used to watch Guiding Light, which at the time was the oldest soap opera on air.  And Guiding Light was awesome for several reasons, if not for Roger and all his raping, but the lady I identified with the most was sassy Miss Reva Shayne.

Reva was a little bit country, always looking for her rock and roll.  Which is probably what led her to marrying EVERY SINGLE LEWIS MAN EVER BORN.  Like, seriously.  She married H.B.  And his son, Josh.  And then his other son, Billy.  And then his son Josh, again.  It was a very tumultuous time for her.  Remember when her clone Dolly (not the sheep) tried to kill her?  Yikes.

Anyway, book.  I gotta say, you're totally the Billy Lewis of this relationship.  You're nice enough, and I like you, but you sure don't sweep me off my feet like your brother does. 

FTC Full Disclosure:  I received a free review copy of this book from HarperCollins.  I received neither money nor cocktails for this review (damnit).  The Turning is available in stores now.

Erin Callahan's photo About the Author: Erin is loud, foul-mouthed, an unrepentant lover of trashy movies and believes that champagne should be an every day drink. When she isn't drowning in a sea of engineers for whom Dilbert is still uproariously funny, she's writing about books, tv, the cult of VC Andrews and more.
K