Ann Patchett’s 'State of Wonder' and Other Twists on Classic Novels

One of the best novels of the year, Ann Patchett’s 'State of Wonder,' is an updated version of 'Heart of Darkness.' Here are four others.

In Ann Patchett’s enrapturing new State of Wonder, a laboratory scientist named Marina is sent on a mission into the Amazon to find a brilliant researcher who has gone silent. You don’t have to notice how Conrad’s Heart of Darkness flows like a river through Patchett’s novel, but it adds a pleasant frisson to the reading if you do (the way knowing Conrad’s novella enhances Francis Ford Coppola’s film variation, Apocalypse Now.)

Patchett obviously didn’t invent the idea of channeling and updating classics. Joyce’s Ulysses may be the best-known example of what T. S. Eliot called “the mythic method,” and in our own day Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning but programmatic 1000 Acres turns King Lear into the story of a middle-American family, with three daughters feuding over the inheritance of Dad’s farm. But the idea has been used with especially rich, often playful results in some fine recent novels.

We’re not talking about fiction that imagines what happened to Jane and Rochester after Jane Eyre ended, but a more sophisticated approach that embraces the essence of a great work—its themes and characters, even its literary style and opening line—and allows that to infuse the new work. The strategy is about transformation rather than slavish copying, about homage and underpinning, as today’s novelists tap into the profound, enduring elements of the classics and make them their own.

Here are the best recent novels that channel classics.

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett

Fraught with mystery, the novel (Patchett’s best since the artful Bel Canto) flat out tells us that Dr. Marina Singh is heading “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” pure Conrad territory, to find her one-time mentor, Dr. Annika Swenson, who may have discovered the secret of life-long fertility for women. Patchett’s river is the Amazon not the Congo, but Marina is her Marlow and Swenson—with her playing-god research and reluctance to leave the jungle—is the novel’s megalomaniacal Kurtz.

State of Wonder borrows some plot points; Marina is delayed in a backwater before heading down the river, like Marlow. But Patchett gives Marina a history Marlow never had, including daddy issues and a haunting episode from her earlier medical career.

What Patchett lifts most fruitfully is Conrad’s idea of taking the reader on a journey deep into a jungle of secrets, finding a nexus of darkness and overweening ambition, and returning home changed.

On Beauty

By Zadie Smith

Smith’s reliance on Howards End is plain in the acknowledgments preceding her story. “It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by E. M. Forster,” she writes. “I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.” Forster’s opening line, “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister,” is echoed in Smith’s “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” (not coincidentally named Howard).

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But Smith brilliantly goes on to adapt Forster’s story of the Schlegel and Wilcox families, grappling with issues of class in Edwardian England, by turning them into the academic Belsey and Kipp families, dealing with issues of race and politics as well as class in contemporary New England.

Forster’s famous epigraph “Only connect,” assumes a disconnection to be bridged—the perfect subject for Smith’s trenchant, elegant, career-long focus on our own fractured culture. Liberal, white Howard Belsey is married to African-American Kiki, and their three children (like three Schlegels) include Zora, whose affair with an uneducated spoken word artist mirrors Helen Schlegel’s affair with a working class man. And there is a gulf between Belsey and his conservative rival, Monty Kipps, whose dying wife forms a bond with Kiki, the way Mrs. Wilcox did with Margaret Schlegel.

But as much as Smith alludes to and adores Forster, she is wry enough to have Howard pick up a book someone else has been reading, glance at the spine and say, “A Room With a View . . . Can’t stand Forster.”

What Happened to Anna K.

By Irina Reyn

Reyn’s stunning first novel, published in 2008, deserves to be better known. The title signals her affection for Tolstoy as she shrewdly turns Anna Karenina and her family into Russian emigres living in Queens.

Like Anna Karenina, Reyn’s story sympathetically charts the dislocation of a woman who hasn’t found an identity of her own, marries an older man because it is time, then leaves him and their son, Sasha, for her romanticized younger lover. Reyn’s version of the dashing military man Vronsky is even less ideal than Tolstoy’s; he’s an impoverished adjunct professor named David.

The subplot echoes Tolstoy too, as Anna K’s cousin, Katia, marries the earnest Lev (Anna Karenina’s Kitty and Levin). Her most Tolstoyan touch, though, comes with her detailed realism, a total immersion in Anna’s world, from the Queens and its discount fashion shops “with their mirrored walls, their fur-swaddled mannequins,” to her married life on East 80th Street in Manhattan, furnished by visits to “auctions at William Doyle, SoHo showrooms.”

Throughout, Reyn’s taut dramatic trajectory never lets us forget that a subway is also a train.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

By Helen Fielding

The popularity of the novel and Renee Zellweger’s movie version may have obscured how smart and witty Fielding’s comedy of manners is. Her references to Pride and Prejudice are blatant and playful. Bridget loves Mark Darcy, although at first she finds him arrogant and self-absorbed, just as Elizabeth Bennet regards her Mr. Darcy. Fielding layers on the allusions by having Bridget swoon repeatedly over Colin Firth in the TV miniseries of P and P, a nod to how the romantic ideal of Darcy has morphed and persisted into the present.

Fielding’s more crucial inheritance from Jane Austen appears in her astute observations of courtship rituals and how women think about them, updated to include shags. When Bridget dresses for a date and worries about Daniel—her boss and the wrong man—lifting her skirt to find her industrial-strength tummy-controlling undies (which increase the odds he’ll want to seduce her at all) it’s a moment of familiarity and comic delight for us, just as Elizabeth’s being “obliged by the scarceness of gentlemen to sit down for two dances” must have sent a chill of recognition through Austen’s first readers.

The Hours

By Michael Cunningham

If you’ve only seen the film—with Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf and her nose—you have just a sense of the intricacy and elegance of Cunningham’s homage to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, whose working title was The Hours. Cunningham’s Hours has three interwoven parts: Woolf herself writing Mrs. Dalloway; a young, suicidally depressed mother in the 1950s, who is reading it; and a present-day Clarissa (Meryl Streep in the movie) whose section of the book begins, “There are still flowers to buy,” echoing the famous first line of Woolf’s novel, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Like Woolf’s fiction, Cunningham’s eloquently filters the events of a single day though each narrator’s stream of consciousness until we arrive at a stunning moment of enlightenment when all the fragments of the apparently disparate stories cohere.

And Cunningham’s Clarissa—fondly nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by one of her oldest friends—lives with her lover, Sally, whose name echoes Sally Seton, a young woman Clarissa Dalloway once passionately kissed then left in her past. It’s a twist that feels contemporary. And as it smoothly blends Woolf with Cunningham, reveals why so many novelists latch into those ripples from classics they love.