Books that modernize, grapple with, or converse with existing materials are plentiful. They range from lightly updated retellings true to the original content and context to full reimaginings that use the tropes of the source material as inspiration for almost wholly new stories. The books on this list run the gamut between the two, but each of them uses a myth, fairy tale, fable, or classic as a starting point to give one-dimensional female characters agency, reimagine traditional stories with a feminist bent, and update and interrogate antiquated tropes to reflect more modern and diverse experiences. Given the abundance of important, thought-provoking retellings, this list is, by necessity, nondefinitive. Share your favorite retellings in the comments.
What if, 13 years after their fairy-tale wedding, Cinderella decided she wanted Prince Charming dead? Olga Grushin's dark, literary reimagining of Cinderella's story, The Charmed Wife, is not for the faint of heart. There is no "happily ever after" here. Cinderella's life has been imagined and reimagined in countless retellings, but rarely with such rich language and such a clever mashup of fairy tale tropes and grim realism. Grushin's telling gives us an unhappy middle-aged Cinderella struggling with motherhood, marriage, aging, and agency, and turns traditional romantic notions on their head.
A brilliant, brutal reworking of Sophocles's Antigone, Antigona Gonzalez recasts the eponymous Antigona as a woman searching for her brother, one of the thousands lost during Mexico's long war on drugs. Uribe combines the intimate story of one woman's loss with a work of activism and reportage. Antigona mourns her brother's disappearance while the choir cries for all the missing, the fear and silence, the obfuscations of the authorities. Unlike most retellings, Uribe actively intertwines Antigona's story with the pastiches of Antigone that have come before. This is urgent poetry that demands to be read in one horrified, aching sitting.
One of her lesser-known books and a departure from her more famous science fiction and fantasy writings, Lavinia shows off Le Guin's skills as a classicist. More of a companion piece than a traditional retelling, Lavinia opens up a dialogue with Virgil's The Aeneid and adds richness and depth to the story. In Le Guin's capable hands, Lavinia, a minor and entirely silent character, is given her own voice and her own agency. Lavinia is meticulously researched and, as with everything Le Guin, powerfully written and wise.
The title of Yamashita's story collection is slightly misleading. Sansei and Sensibility contains pastiches of not one, but all six Austen novels plus Lady Susan and other original works written from the perspective of sansei — third-generation Japanese Americans. Ambitious and highly conceptual, Yamashita's writing makes you work to uncover the layers of meaning and to see the connections between each story and Austen. This is not a story collection that can, or should, be read quickly, but each story is clever, witty, full of the joy and pain of the Japanese American experience, and well worth the time and energy to fully commit to.
Building on the world of Greek mythology, Circe transcends the original and the many pastiches that followed to give us a fully drawn portrait of the enchantress who is best known in the original mythology for turning most of Odysseus's crew to swine. Miller's Circe is a lover and a destroyer, full of jealousy, anger, and passion, aching for freedom and ineluctably flawed. Even if you think you don't like mythology or are hesitant to read retellings, Miller is worth reading. She might change your mind. Once you have finished Circe, you will want to read her backlist. Start with The Song of Achilles.
Powerful and mesmerizing, Cannibal confronts what it means to be a Black immigrant woman in a white patriarchal world. Interrogating and conversing with Shakespeare's Caliban, Cannibal is intense, evocative, painful, lovely, and full of rage. This is poetry that demands your full attention and requires time for digestion.
If you love mythology, or the books on this list have sparked your interest in retellings and reevaluations of classic stories, Jess Zimmerman's feminist analysis of the monsters of Greek lore should be next on your list. She uses female monsters of legend to explore how society treats women who dare to be angry, lustful, powerful, or otherwise fail to conform to societal norms. Interspersed with experiences from the author's life, Women and Other Monsters is a thought-provoking cultural analysis wrapped in highly enjoyable, conversational language.