Chris Adrian’s The Great Night has been getting fabulous reviews everywhere, including on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, my favorite podcast ever and the thing that makes my commute bearable. The book is billed as a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in modern-day San Francisco. I liked the book and would recommend it, but I think anyone interested in reading it should keep two things in mind:
1) It’s more “inspired by” than a retelling. This is not Clueless, where you can find an exact parallel to almost every character and plot point. Yes, there are fairies and it is Midsummer Eve, but from there the plot’s relation to Shakespeare’s play gets hazier. In this version, Titania and Oberon rule the fairy world under a San Francisco park, but their marriage is breaking under the weight of their grief over the death of a human changeling boy they had adopted. Puck is not, well, puck-ish but is (to quote NPR’s PCHH) a Big Bad who is freed from service to the King and Queen and is now out for revenge. Humans are involved, but it’s not two pairs of lovers, it’s three single city residents all on their way to the same party, who get trapped in the park when Puck is freed. And remember the “rude mechanicals,” like Bottom with the donkey’s head? In this story those are the homeless people also trapped in the park during Puck’s rampage.
2) The tone is . . . dark. I know that the play deals with themes that are not all sunshine and roses, including the fickleness of love, our lack of free will, etc. But I’ve always thought of the play as one of Shakepeare’s works that is is easy to watch–everyone lives, it’s funny and pretty and there is usually music and people dressed up in fairy wings. But this is not a happy book, or a playful book, or a light-hearted book. It’s overall theme is one of loss, and how people chose to deal with their losses. Titania and Oberon were suffering from the death of (what they considered) their child, while the human characters are all struggling to figure out how to carry on with their lives after their own tragedies.
But while it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it is a beautiful book. I don’t particularly like San Francisco (in fairness, I’ve only been there once and it was in June, which is apparently the February of San Francisco), but Adrian’s descriptions make it seem like the city that would have fairies, if any one did. The passages where Titania’s changeling son is dying are both spell-binding and heartbreaking. She’s not a likeable character, but her grief is so real it is painful to read. She and Oberon are forced to take the boy to a human hospital for treatment, and the absurdity of the fairies trying to interact with and understand the human world is striking. I’ve obviously never been in this situation, but I wonder if a hospital–specifically the children’s cancer ward–would seem just as surreal and otherworldly to any parent with critically ill child. When the author is not writing critical beloved books, he’s a pediatric oncologist (don’t we all feel unaccomplished now?) and the parts of the book that talk about medical treatments and hospitals and doctors’ lives have a feeling of authenticity. I also enjoyed how the storylines of the various characters, human and fairy, overlapped in unexpected ways. I don’t want to give anything way, but I found the connections very satisfying.
This is a book that requires some faith–you have to read along and trust that the story and relatonships between the characters will become clear, but it’s one that has stayed with me days after I finished it.