10 Contemporary Novels Based on Classic Lit That Are Actually Worth Your Time


This week saw the American release of Francesca Segal’s debut novel, The Innocents , a superb modern-day retelling of The Age of Innocence , Edith Wharton’s classic novel of upper class scandal. Now, adaptation, cross-pollination and flat out stealing are nothing new in the literary world — after all, Madame Bovary was heavily influenced by Don Quixote , Finnegans Wake was inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , and Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre . And those are just a few sterling examples — the trend of adaptation and re-adaptation is rampant, and sadly, there are plenty of cheap reincarnations of classic texts that put their inspirations to shame. However, we’re so excited by The Innocents that we decided to put together an entire reading list of wonderful contemporary novels based on works of classic literature, so you can indulge in the present and the past in equal measure. Click through to check out our list, and as always, if we’ve missed your favorite, be sure to let us know in the comments!

The Innocents , Francesca Segal ( The Age of Innocence )

In Segal’s fantastic debut, she reimagines Wharton’s scandal-ridden 1870s New York as a tight-knit Jewish community in modern day London, replacing the free spirited Countess Ellen Olenska with Ellie Schneider, a model recently kicked out of Columbia for appearing in a porn film, and protagonist Newland Archer with Adam Newman, who becomes entranced by Ellie’s “seedy glamour.” Compelling, smart, and silkily written, this novel just might become a classic of its own.

Lavinia , Ursula K. LeGuin ( The Aeneid )

It’s no secret that we’re lifelong fans of Ursula K. LeGuin, and with good reason — she is the master of creating alternative worlds that sing with as much truth and dimension as our actual one. In her 2008 Locus Award-winning novel, LeGuin tells the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ second wife in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, transmuting his familiar world into a unique and beautiful tale of omens, loyalties, and war.

A Monster’s Notes , Laurie Sheck ( Frankenstein )

An accomplished poet, Sheck’s first novel is an unconventional, variegated work that imagines the relationship between Frankenstein’s monster and Mary Shelley if she had met him as a small child, intertwining the musings of the monster on his own life and on the nature of humanity with Shelley’s own fictionalized letters, and allowing him to watch his own legacy up to the current date. It is a lovely, philosophical stumper of a novel that will wind around you for days.

Bridget Jones’s Diary , Helen Fielding ( Pride and Prejudice )

Helen Fielding has stated openly that her bestselling novel is based on Jane Austen’s enduring classic, and if you’ve seen the film adaptation, you probably remember the visual joke that is Colin Firth playing Mark Darcy, who is, of course, named after Austen’s famous Mr. Darcy. Who, of course, Colin Firth played in the excellent 1995 BBC adaptation. The novel (which is better than the film, by the way), is just as charmingly self-aware of its own influences — when we first meet the aforementioned Mark Darcy, Bridget thinks, “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.” Indeed.

His Dark Materials , Philip Pullman ( Paradise Lost )

Okay, so this is officially a trilogy, but we’re counting it. In these books, Pullman ingeniously both retells and inverts John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which relates the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace, as he constructs a society moving between worlds and attempting to find the source of Dust — which the Magisterium believes to be the root of sin, but in actuality is something more like self-awareness. A huge Milton fan, when Pullman realized he was writing a version of Paradise Lost, he wasn’t too bothered. “I didn’t think on the one hand, ‘Oh, bugger, I’m telling the same story,’ or, on the other hand, ‘Oh great, I can copy it.’ I just realized that in his patch Milton had been working on the same thing. And a long time ago the original writer of the book of Genesis had been working on the same story.”

March , Geraldine Brooks ( Little Women )

Brooks’s wonderful second novel imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the missing father of the March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s intensely loved Little Women. We learn about March’s struggles with violence and racism as well as some of his personal history, and when he is injured and laid up in a hospital, the passionate Marmee takes over with her own version. Though fans of Little Women will be most delighted, we pretty much recommend it for anyone who enjoys a starkly human, terribly beautiful take on historic events.

The Penelopiad , Margaret Atwood ( The Odyssey )

Like LeGuin, Atwood explores the feminine side of one of our most essential literary works, this time through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus’s loyal wife. Witty and charming, Atwood challenges the patriarchal standard of Greek myths and entertains us at the same time.

Railsea , China Miéville ( Moby Dick )

Miéville’s newest novel is something like an echo, or an “affectionate parody” of Melville’s classic (and the similarity of their surnames makes us shiver with a bit of extra joy), transported to a land crossed by train tracks, where Captain Naphi of the moletrain Medes pursues Mocker-Jack, his great “old-tooth colored” moldywarpe. Of the genesis of the book, Miéville has said, “I’ve always liked burrowing monsters — Tremors, Burrowers — and I’ve always loved Moby Dick, and at some point I was amused by the idea of the ridiculous semiotic pun of thinking of Moby Dick but with giant moles instead of whales.” Sure, it seems ridiculous, but it’s actually pretty darn awesome.

The Hours , Michael Cunningham ( Mrs. Dalloway )

As you probably know (because even if you’ve never read it, you may have seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation), Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning novel is based not only on Mrs. Dalloway, but also the life of Virginia Woolf herself. The novel follows three generations of women — first Woolf as she writes the book, struggling with mental illness, then Mrs. Brown, a WWII wife in 1949, then Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary woman whose best friend is dying from AIDS. All three are affected by and also parallel Mrs. Dalloway herself, and Cunningham skillfully mimics Woolf’s style to create a desperately beautiful, perfect novel.

A Thousand Acres , Jane Smiley ( King Lear )

King Lear in a cornfield? Yep, that had us hooked too. This NBCC and Pulitzer Prize-winning retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear is set on a thousand acre farm in Iowa, the home of a farmer and his three daughters. King Lear becomes Larry Cook, and the story, which is just as dark and complicated as the original, is told from the perspective of the eldest daughter, Ginny (née Goneril). Whether you’re fan of Shakespeare or not (though let’s face it, if you’re reading this you probably are), we can’t recommend it enough.