IMPORTANT CONTENT WARNING: One thing to consider before you pick up this book is that it deals with heavy topics such as emotional and physical abuse. Not only that, but it’s told vividly through the point of view of a survivor who relives traumatic moments (both in her memories and within the plot). Please keep this in mind and take care of yourselves.
When I got the chance to get my hands on Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste for review, I jumped at it. Although I’m not familiar with Kiste’s work, I’m a sucker for revisionist versions of classics, especially the ones that reexamine the role of maligned or largely disregarded women (looking at you, The Mists of Avalon, Wicked). The classics in this case are Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This is the official breakdown:
“[…] A historical horror novel that looks at two men of classic literature, Dracula and Mr. Rochester, and the two women who survived them, Bertha and Lucy, who are now undead immortals residing in Los Angeles in 1967 when Dracula and Rochester make a shocking return in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.”
When we find them, Lucy (Dracula’s ill-fated victim) has formed a bond with Bertha (Edward Rochester’s attic-bound first wife), or Bee, as she likes to go by now. They’re living together in Hollywood, of all places, but both are trapped in a limbo where they’re simply existing while doing their best to avoid their past and the looming presence of the men that used and abused them.
Reluctant Immortals is a fun read that examines the lasting effects of abuse, and the ramifications of the emotional harm. Lucy Westenra is our first person narrator; she somehow survived Dracula and now struggles with her nature as a vampire and carries a burden to protect others from her same fate. She’s a compelling character who’s trapped in a cycle of hopelessness and self-hate.
Lucy’s not the same social butterfly we meet in Dracula; she’s retracted into herself, living in fear of what she is and what she could do if she let loose. On top of that, she’s put the weight of the world upon her shoulders, carrying a responsibility that has her trapped and stops her from living beyond surviving. However, she must shake herself of her stagnant emotional state to take action when the two men she and her friend Bee have been running from make an appearance again.
Sadly, we don’t get as much of Bee as I would have liked. Her character mostly serves Lucy’s arc to let herself open up to another friend again after being closed off so long (with Bee doing the same in turn). To some extent, Bee could have been replaced with another character instead of plucking Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre and suggesting such a drastic retelling of Jane Eyre.
The book takes Dracula’s plot to heart, alluding to key moments in Lucy’s story such as her three proposals and Van Helsing’s attempt to save her life. Meanwhile, Jane Eyre gets the full revisionist treatment, suggesting that the people in control of the public narrative have twisted the facts to the point of being unrecognizable. Kiste certainly proposes a very interesting and juicy narrative, from how exactly Rochester and Bertha became immortal to changes in the core relationships from the book. Therefore, I’m left wishing the story had tipped more than a toe into that mystery.
With all that said, Bee does get her own complete arc, and her friendship and sorority with Lucy is what carries the story — and Lucy — through to the end. I would have loved to see more of her, and her internal life. I do believe a split point of view would have served this book very well; there are pivotal moments in which I would have loved to jump into Bee’s head.
The author doesn’t stop at Lucy and Bee, though. Other characters from one or both of the original novels make appearances and also get the revisionist treatment. There’s one character in particular that caught me off guard with how emotional and ultimately satisfying their arc is. I won’t spoil it here, but this is the part of the book that truly made me revise my own reading and emotions towards the original material, which is the ultimate goal of revisionist material.
Of Rochester and Dracula’s part I’ll only say that I’m happy they’re both portrayed as exactly and unambiguously what they were in their original stories, especially Rochester.
Plot & Setting
Reluctant Immortals tells a relatively mundane story in a way that’s reminiscent of both the original novels. There’s a lot of driving and going back and forth into familiar settings. This, I appreciated, because the physical space of scenes is sometimes hard to understand. For example, how two people can be running after someone in a crowded room and somehow also dancing. That said, I’m the kind of reader who’s most often bored by action sequences and wants to skip over to the character moments and dialogue scenes, so take my assessment of this aspect with a grain of salt.
In the end, the book’s plot suits my preferences well because it’s a character-driven story. Kiste prefers to spend long paragraphs in Lucy’s self-flagellating thoughts rather than have a chapter-long car chase scene, which I appreciate. Even though it’s not action-packed however, it is fast-paced and doesn’t linger in one place for too long, which makes this a dynamic read.
As for the setting, the LA-San Francisco 60s scene works well enough. The book uses aspects of the period well and plucks characters from key historical moments like the Vietnam war and the counterculture movement.
Even though I could see more or less how the plot would unravel from about one third of the way through, I enjoyed the ride thoroughly and I’m thankful that the book didn’t pull the rug from under me. Kiste knows what a reader who picks this book will want, and instead of trying to shock us, she delights in giving us exactly what we want.
Mythology, Themes & Conclusion
In the same way that Reluctant Immortals isn’t too bothered with action, it also isn’t too worried about the fantasy aspect. I would describe the mythology of the story as a soft magic system. There are hints of how Rochester and Bee become immortals, why Lucy’s the way she is, and what the afterlife looks like, but we don’t stop on the how and the why. This works well here, since the magic serves as a metaphor, and heavy exposition would take away from its impact.
Speaking of metaphors, the book does have the fault of being a bit heavy-handed with them. Kiste is perhaps too outright in her messaging, spelling it out for the reader repeatedly. Lucy reiterates the same sentiment and often explains events for us. Though the prose might be a bit repetitive at times, it’s not too overbearing to the point of being a nuisance. That said, sometimes messages need to be spelled out to be understood.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable read you can speed through. My life was hectic for a handful of weeks where I could only get through a couple of pages every other day. However, as soon as I had time to sit down, I plowed through the second half of the book in hours. Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the fast-paced last third of the story.
Reluctant Immortals makes no claim of excessive intellectualism, and in that unpretentiousness, I found myself more satisfied with the protagonists’ vindication than I ever did with the likes of The Mists of Avalon or even Wicked. In the end, sometimes I just need a bit of wish fulfillment, and this story delivers exactly that. I was left, however, with the urgent and unfulfilled desire to read Kiste’s version of Jane Eyre.
You can get Reluctant Immortals here.
Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster.
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