When I was in the tenth grade, my English teacher, overhearing as I grumbled to my friends about how "messed up" I found the romance between Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, pulled me aside and suggested that I read Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. "Don't give up on it," she warned, probably guessing it might be a little beyond me but believing I could benefit from reading it anyway. She was right—it was a little beyond me—but she was also right to know there was something in Rhys' novel I needed to see right then, something that would help me work through the issues with Brontë that I was experiencing yet struggling to articulate. It was an important lesson in the gender politics of the ubiquitous femme fatale figure, and it came at a pretty critical formative moment. Bertha Mason's story is just the sort of thing fifteen-year-old girls could learn something useful from, even if her novel wasn't written with fifteen-year-old girls in mind.
Kids these days don't know how good they have it. While I would happily point intrepid teens of today in Rhys' direction if the opportunity arose, it's no longer necessary. The landscape of YA has unfurled so much since I was a tenth-grader that today's teens can get their feminist primers in teen-friendly packaging, through stories written with their interests in mind and told by narrators who will resonate with them. Today, instead of Wide Sargasso Sea, I might hand an inquiring young mind a copy of Lady Macbeth's Daughter, Lisa Klein's foray into the world of Shakespeare's women.
Klein's project in Lady Macbeth's Daughter is much like Rhys' in Wide Sargasso Sea: to give an iconic femme fatale of the literary canon—in this case, Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth—a chance to tell her side of the story. In Klein's reimagining, Macbeth's wife, called Grelach, gives birth to a club-footed baby girl. Revolted by his daughter's deformity, Macbeth orders the baby killed; however, unbeknownst to Lord and Lady Macbeth, Grelach's servant, Rhuven, hides the baby away to be raised by her sisters, Geillis and Helwain (Klein's take on the weird sisters of the play). The baby girl, called Albia, grows up unaware of her parentage, but her life becomes entangled with Macbeth's when Geillis sends her to be fostered with Banquo and his family after Macbeth's murder of King Duncan. As Albia learns of her true heritage, she becomes witness to, and participant in, the rise and downfall of her murderous father as Shakespeare mapped it out in his Scottish play. Readers already acquainted with the play will be delighted to find themselves stumbling into and out of familiar territory, and to receive contextualization of some of the play's major scenes from different points of view.
The novel is alternately narrated Grelach and Albia, and both narrators are heartbreakingly compelling. Albia, the main protagonist of the story, manages to be a strong female character without becoming too much of a Strong Female Character ™. If she's a little mature by comparison to her fellow YA heroines (teenagers were basically adults in the world of medieval Scotland), she still manages to find beats of youthful adolescence, particularly in moments where she dwells on her love for Banquo's son Fleance—the romance is a little silly, but appropriately fluttery and hormonal and thus sure to satisfy. Klein's language throughout is elegant and appropriate to the historical moment she's inhabiting, and the novel ends on a beautiful tableau of female solidarity that serves as a powerful reminder of the high cost of patriarchal machinations and the marginalization of women.