I think the world is obsessed with retellings of classic stories: Ghostbusters with a female cast, more and more Spider-Man movies, etc. Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott is no exception. It is a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, a play that was turned into a movie.
The retelling takes place in 1947 Harlem, the summer Jackie Robinson starts his professional baseball career – a time setting which I found fascinating. We get to know Mae Malveaux, a wealthy heiress, who doesn’t seem to believe in love. She uses men for their affection and bodies and then throws them away when she’s done with them. You can imagine how angry (hurt?) she is when Frank leaves her to find a wife more to his tastes – a virginal Southern belle named Cecily.
Enter the revenge plot: Mae wants revenge on Frank for leaving her so she makes a deal with Valiant (Val) Jackson – a man with a shady reputation in Harlem, but a passion for Mae – if he makes virginal Cecily no longer a virgin, Mae will sleep with Val.
There’s more, but I don’t want to spoil anything.
I love that the story is set in 1940s Harlem. It’s a vibrant setting with which I’m largely unfamiliar. The retelling of this classic story from the perspective of African-Americans is brilliant and creative. There’s tension between the characters and I felt the tension of the times. World War II has basically just ended, the Civil Rights Movement is about to become a huge part of history, and the Korean War is going to start in a few years.
Retellings often don’t work for me. I usually like the original better or the idea of the retelling is trite and isn’t well thought out. However, Unforgivable Love can stand on its own as a great book that anyone will enjoy whether or not they’re familiar with Dangerous Liaisons. It examines faith, innocence (and the loss of it), and what it means to love someone. It may be a retelling, but it feels like its own story.
Bottom line: This book simply dazzles.
• Paperback: 528 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (September 26, 2017)
A People Magazine October pick!
“A dazzlingly dark and engaging tale full of heartbreak, treachery, and surprise.” – Kirkus
In this vivid reimagining of the French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s the summer when Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier and a sweltering stretch has Harlem’s elite fleeing the city for Westchester County’s breezier climes, two predators stalk amidst the manicured gardens and fine old homes.
Heiress Mae Malveaux rules society with an angel’s smile and a heart of stone. She made up her mind long ago that nobody would decide her fate. To have the pleasure she craves, control is paramount, especially control of the men Mae attracts like moths to a flame.
Valiant Jackson always gets what he wants—and he’s wanted Mae for years. The door finally opens for him when Mae strikes a bargain: seduce her virginal young cousin, Cecily, who is engaged to Frank Washington. Frank values her innocence above all else. If successful, Val’s reward will be a night with Mae.
But Val secretly seeks another prize. Elizabeth Townsend is fiercely loyal to her church and her civil rights attorney husband. Certain there is something redeemable in Mr. Jackson. Little does she know that her worst mistake will be Val’s greatest triumph.
About Sophfronia Scott
Sophfronia Scott hails from Lorain, Ohio. She was a writer and editor at Time and People magazines before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.