You probably didn’t feel sorry for Grendel, the horrifying monster who wreaks havoc on the townspeople in Beowulf, on your first pass through the epic poem in high school. The dude eats warriors like pretzels. But John Gardner’s artful re-imagining portrays Grendel as a complicated force of nature, complete with mother issues. It gives Beowulf an interesting post-colonialist twist. Beowulf and his cohorts only show up at the very end, making the book act as a prequel of sorts as well as a parallel.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (inspired by Jane Eyre)
Jean Rhys’ book is a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story of the elusive Antoinette Cosway — Mr. Rochester’s first wife, known in Brontë’s novel as Bertha Mason (or “the crazy woman in the attic.”) Rhys’ interpretation shows the first Mrs. Rochester as the victim of a patriarchal society, caught between her loveless marriage and her years in the Caribbean.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (inspired by Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf)
Cunningham’s novel is both a parallel and a tribute to Woolf, reflecting Woolf’s stream of consciousness prose and weaving the details of her own tempestuous personal life into the story. It’s a sensitive, intricate look at the author and her work. “The Hours” was even Woolf’s original working title for Mrs. Dalloway.
Foe by J.M. Coetzee (inspired by Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe)
Coetzee’s look at Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of Cruso’s shipmate Susan Barton, Foe is a powerful commentary on the voices of marginalized people in history, linking the political atmosphere of modern South Africa with the swashbuckling tale of 18th century adventure and survival.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (inspired by Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Yes, it’s a parallel play, not a novel, but Tom Stoppard’s absurdist take on Hamlet is a stroke of brilliance, retelling the classic tragedy through the eyes of very minor characters. It’s a clever, funny look at what happens in the wings of the play, inversing the structure of Hamlet and adding an element of dadaist chaos into the mix.
March by Geraldine Brooks (inspired by Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Brooks takes on the classic Little Women from the eyes of the sisters’ absent dad, basing her portrait on Louisa May Alcott’s own father, who was an abolitionist and teacher. March centers on the civil war and the brutality of slavery, touching on works by Thoreau and Emerson, who were both family friends of the Alcotts.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (inspired by The Odyssey by Homer)
Atwood’s riff on The Odyssey is part of the Canongate Myth series, a whole vein of parallel novels in which contemporary authors take on ancient myths. In this case, Atwood focuses on Odysseus’ long-suffering wife Penelope, giving the story a feminist reworking that illustrates the gender double standards in classic Greek literature.
Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike (inspired by Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Another riff on Hamlet’s odd beginnings, Updike’s book explores the relationship between the prince’s mother and uncle. What Shakespeare portrays as a relationship based on corruption and greed, Updike turns into a compelling romance, neatly rearranging the revenge story into something with a different tinge of tragedy.
Finn by Jon Clinch (inspired by Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)
In his first book, Jon Clinch explores the world of Huckleberry’s violent father Pap, but it doesn’t do much to redeem him. Clinch’s Pap is cruel, complicated, and even has a shade of cannibalism — but he sure is fun to read about.
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (inspired by Moby Dick by Herman Melville)
Naslund spins her entire feminist version of Moby Dick from a single line in Melville’s tome that mentions Ahab’s spouse, who becomes, in Ahab’s Wife, an independent 19th century woman with just as much adventurous spirit as her obsessive husband.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (inspired by King Lear by William Shakespeare)
Smiley’s contemporary spin on the classic tragedy, set in the cornfields of Iowa and told from Goneril’s viewpoint, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. If you’ve only seen the horrible film version — which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jessica Lange, and Michelle Pfeiffer — do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of the book. You’ll quickly realize how much effort must have gone in to butchering such rich source material.