Book Review: Ophelia by Lisa M. Klein

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll probably have heard me mention my great love of Shakespeare. If you gave me that ultimatum to choose one author that I could read for the rest of my life, it would be he.

Back when I was a teenager, I loved reading modern retellings of Shakespeare’s plays. Some I remember fondly (though they were often atrociously written) include Saving Juliet by Suzanne Selfors, Romeo’s Ex: Rosaline’s Story by Lisa Fiedler, and Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney (one book I actually still like, though it is a bit shallow).

When I heard that there was a new movie coming out starring Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts (two amazing actresses) which was based on one such retelling, I realized I had to read it. That book is Ophelia by Liza M. Klein.

When the movie comes out, I definitely plan to see it and perhaps I will do a review of the movie as well. But for now, I want to talk about the book.

As the title suggests, Ophelia is a retelling of Hamlet from the perspective of his beloved Ophelia, who in the original play commits suicide by drowning. This story twists her tale, not only starting far before the play begins but also ending after it has resolution.

For those who know nothing about Hamlet (if not, I highly encourage you to read it or watch the 1996 version starring Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet and Kate Winslet as Ophelia), it follows the 14th century prince of Denmark Hamlet. After his father dies, his ghost appears to Hamlet stating that his brother (Hamlet’s uncle) has killed him and Hamlet must seek revenge. But things are made difficult by the fact that his uncle Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. For the rest of the play, Hamlet attempts (and eventually succeeds at the cost of his own life) to seek revenge and remove a dangerous man from the throne of Denmark (this is a very shortened synopsis, btw).

Ophelia tells the story from outside the action, instead focusing on the romance between Ophelia and Hamlet before the original play starts and through to the end.

Let me just admit, I skimmed the second half of this book because I found it completely intolerable. Let me explain why.

A while ago I wrote a blog post on how Show Don’t Tell is a Lie. I point out in there the importance of not showing everything. How, in reality, you should tell a lot of what happens. However, this book is an example of why show don’t tell makes some sense.

Everything is told. You’ll have three pages of exposition before two lines of dialogue. The plot progresses extremely slow as well. While the book is only a little over 300 pages, it felt like it was at least 600.

Ophelia herself isn’t really relatable. Everything is told from a slightly detached perspective. Keep in mind, I’m not the demographic this book was written for (a.k.a., I’m no longer a teenager). But I don’t remember thinking anything like Ophelia when I was that age. She feels like the author threw a modern poorly developed caricature of a teen girl into the 14th century and made her a bit demure and said, “yep, now she’s historical.”

And Ophelia was the best character! In the original, we never see much of Ophelia, so the author has more leeway in developing and changing her character. However, other characters (especially Hamlet and Gertrude) are entirely different from their original counterparts. I would be more forgiving if this was a modern retelling, but this is supposed to be the same story and same characters from a different perspective. It is not. The story is similar, but the depth of characters’ motivation, and complexity of the characters themselves, is nonexistent.

There are many Easter eggs for readers of the original (like Yorick showing up alive near the beginning), but it almost feels as if the author is adding these scenes just for the sake of tying something back to the original. What I’m trying to say is that this feels like a loose Hollywood adaptation, not a true interesting retelling.

One thing I did not dislike is the twist that Ophelia did not die, and instead escaped with Horatio’s aid and faked her death. This was the only part in the book I actually liked, and it was spoiled in the prologue, giving me no reason to read further.

Maybe if I was like thirteen and had never read anything with more depth than The Princess Diaries, I might have enjoyed this more. But knowing the original, having read extensively, and understanding the depth of human nature, I was not amused.

I feel as if this entire review has been more of a rant. If so, I apologize. I started this book really hoping for an interesting retelling and I was sorely disappointed. I think telling the original play from Ophelia’s perspective could have been extremely compelling, but this book was not.

But I’m curious to see the movie and observe how close they stick to the book. It can’t be worse than the novel, right?

What do you think about Shakespeare retellings? Have you read any good ones? Have you read this one? If so, what are your thoughts about it? Let me know down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness, and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Ophelia by Lisa M. Klein

  1. I love The Bard myself (ain’t no better writer anywhere or anywhen!)

    While I would have to admit that Branagh is a better actor than Mel Gibson, I still preferred the latter’s Hamlet. Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is however wonderful and without equal! Another of my favorite modern takes on Shakespeare’s classics is Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth.

    Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is a delightfully goofy riff on Hamlet. It’s sort of Hamlet meets Waiting For Godot. Goofier still and downright trip-o-licious is Rosencrantz And Guildenstern are UnDead!

    It’s too bad Lisa Klein’s Ophelia isn’t any good. I haven’t read it, but I’ll take your word for it (and no, your critique did not come off as a rant.) It’s too bad because, as a tragic character, Ophelia is rich in possibilities for any writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The reason I personally prefer the Branagh version is because they cut less out of the original play (whereas the Mel Gibson had better acting but less original dialogue). And I’ve seen Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (in fact, that play is my favorite by Shakespeare) as well as his Love’s Labours Lost. I like it, but I can’t get over the fact that Branagh’s Benedick and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice are in their thirties/forties when they should be in their early twenties from the original. I haven’t seen Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

      I haven’t read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, though it’s been on my TBR for a while. I should get around to reading it…eventually. And yes, I agree that Ophelia as a character has great potential! Thanks for your keen opinion!

      Liked by 1 person

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