A cracking yarn retold for today. 4/5 stars.
Thank you to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for giving me an e-copy of this book.
The blurb: Beautiful, brilliant, ruthless – nothing can stop Becky Sharp.
Determined to leave her poverty-stricken roots behind her, Becky Sharp is going to take every opportunity offered to her to climb to the top. Whether it’s using her new BFF Amelia Sedley to step up into the rarified world of London’s upper classes, or seducing society’s most eligible bachelors, Becky Sharp is destined for great things – at any cost.
From London to Paris and beyond, the world is there for Becky’s taking – even though some people are determined to stop her along the way…
Vanity Fair (1848) is one of my favourite books, so I jumped at the chance to read The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp.
This is a fun retelling of Vanity Fair in a contemporary context. Free from all of Thackeray’s more (perhaps) long-winded sections, the story zips along, honing in on what makes the original book so brilliant – Becky Sharp – and refocusing the narrative so we’re under no illusions as to which character is the star. That said, just like in Thackeray’s version, Manning’s Becky is also made to earn her time in the limelight, leaving the other characters, and us, slack-jawed in her wake.
Events may seem preposterous at times, but this is a romp, not gritty drama. Even if the characters’ shenanigans don’t make you laugh, you can’t help but smile as the story is told in a breezy tone which is the equivalent of a raised eyebrow and quirked lip. However, this is still a morality tale and this retelling has all the social commentary which underpins Thackeray’s book, particularly when it comes to examining class conflict and snobbery, although here it’s updated to take in the ubiquity of social media (if you’re not on Instagram, do you really exist?) and how reality TV has made a new type of celebrity possible. As ruthless as Becky may be, you have to admire her drive to overcome the poor hand she has been dealt, and the most cutting comments are reserved for those born obliviously into obscene wealth.
I do think you’ll get more out of this book if you’ve read Vanity Fair or watched an adaptation (the recent ITV version was very good). The way Manning transposes the events and characters from the early nineteenth century to the present day is ingenious, especially how she manages to get by without the Napoleonic Wars! I also liked the changes she made to the original story, particularly those which affected the ending for several characters. This is a modern story featuring modern women, and I was pleased to see changes to the fate of the main female characters which reflect these young women making the most of the staggering increase in freedoms and rights that others have fought so hard to give them in the 170 years since Thackeray’s book was first published.
Finally, I was delighted by just how clear this version made it that George is an absolute git (and that’s me choosing a polite-ish word). I always think the original fudges it a bit, putting a lot of the blame for his actions on his upbringing and “weaknesses”, but Manning’s version of the character is completely vile – spot on!
Overall: a fun and thoroughly entertaining retelling of a nineteenth-century classic. I’m pleased to report that Becky Sharp continues to thrive whatever era she’s dropped into!
Claire Huston / Art and Soul