Book Chat: Ophelia by Lisa Klein

You know those books you read that leave you speechless? That completely alter your way of thinking, and leave a lasting imprint on your life? That was the kind of book Ophelia was for me, if only because, before reading it, I had assumed the ending to a novel had to have anything to do with the anything that had happened up until that point. I was wrong it seems.


Ophelia by Lisa Klein is a retelling of Shakespeares Hamlet that reads like shoddy fan fiction. It is clear that Klein had, at least, an interesting twist on the classic tale which she tells through the point of view of Ophelia; but the scope of her story and character alterations far exceeded the bounds of the original play. So, like Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, she began to hack away at her child until its bloody remains fit inside the glass slipper she so coveted. Throughout the book bits and pieces of what could have been a great story were seen weighed down by scenes all but plagiarized from the original play. Direct quotes or paraphrased quotes are sprinkled on every page in a way that couldn’t feel less organic if they tried. It was as if Klein was name dropping recognizable tidbits to remind us of the greatness she was spitting on.

The story flows like cold honey. Major plot points seem to be crow barred in because they’re “supposed” to be there and not because it made any sense at all. All of the characters, too, behaved in ways that made absolutely no sense whatsoever other than their actions were needed to progress to the next scene of the play. Horatio is the only character with an organic personality and motives that are understandable. Hamlet makes absolutely no sense the entire book; does he love Ophelia? Is he mad, or faking it? Does he have a personality at all? No one knows! I can live with unanswered questions but at least don’t leave them unanswered because the character is a different person, with different motives, and different desires every. Time. we see him.

Ophelia is our main character and the book is 1st person, yet she has as much personality as a sponge. She, too, just kind of does stuff because somehow Klein had to shoehorn her own story into the original play. The book begins with Ophelias early life, long before the events of the play and our main character is the typical “Insert modern ideas into an historical setting” type of girl. She is a rough and tumble tomboy, who has a thorough education in language, maths ,sciences, etc. even though her father is a poor courtier. I didn’t like her then but once the events of the play start full speed she loses even those cliche personality traits and I genuinely hate everything she does.

Every scene from the play is included in this book; the ones Ophelia isn’t present for have been helpfully recounted to her by someone sure to paraphrase all the recognizable speeches and go into neurotic details about action. Most of the time there is no need for this. We don’t really need to know everything since this is Ophelias story. Yet Ophelia does know everything that has happened; at one point she is the only person privy to all of the details of every plot point and even warns Horatio that the King is planning to turn Laertes and Hamlet against one another to end them both.

Okay but you’ve been asleep for days so how do you know this? Oh. I forgot. Horatio just told you EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED IN THOSE TWO DAYS, and you are fucking Sherlock. Except she’s not because even though she can pick up on the tiniest details of the plot, making wild leaps to work out exactly what is happening and then going “But I’m probably wrong.”, she can’t see how OBVIOUSLY in love with her Horatio is.

From the moment she first meets Hamlet and Horatio she is head over heels for the Prince and their romance is the main theme of the book yet the love between them is so forced that at no point do either of them seem to have any reason to want this relationship other than that’s what the plot says. We never see them have any organic interaction; we are told it happens somewhere off screen but we never see it. What we do see is how much Horatio loves Ophelia, which she remains blind to until the last page. That love comes across as genuine, it makes sense, hell they TALK! A lot. It’s cute but not cutesy. It feels right. At first I was hopeful that that would be something we explored throughout the book HA.HA. NOPE.

I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m trying not to leave spoilers but please trust me when I say that the moment the events of the play end they cease to matter. Ophelia, who isn’t dead, just begins living this new life. And its great. From page 243 forward the story stops being a knockoff Hamlet and starts being the story of a young *spoilers* pregnant girl with no living family finding sanctuary in a convent. She is trying to come to grips with the scope of her loss and her situation; she pleads with God to absolve her of whatever sins she has committed to find herself in this place. She is running from her past and then she is running towards a future. It’s honestly an interesting and well written story. There is character growth and development; Ophelia doesn’t feel anything like the girl I’d been reading about up until this point. In fact, I feel as if the last 85 pages of this book are a completely different story with only a vague connection to the rest of it.

Had I read only that as a short story I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. Unfortunately it comes packaged with whatever the beginning parts were trying to be and so I’m just confused. The fact that the ending of a book could be so different from the rest I kept mistaking the main character for someone else is enough, on its own, to a condemn a book for me. That is sloppy. Don’t do that. Its clear that once Klein stopped forcing herself to rewrite the play her own creativity shone through and it was genuinely great. That’s not enough though. You can’t make a reader dig through 242 pages of shit to find gold. 2/5 stars.


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