This novel – which I think is aimed at teenagers, though it’s far from clear – is a straightforward prose retelling of Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac. I’m a fan of the original play, to the extent that I’ve watched various incarnations of it on stage and screen, have read the play in various translations (and even in the original French; yes, that’s right, look impressed, and feel slightly aroused by my erudition), and have even listened to the opera.
So I know the story, and was looking forward to the novel. But I was very disappointed – the description of places and people is slight (I don’t think it’s made clear that Cyrano has a big nose until a page or two after his first appearance, when it’s meant to be a defining feature of him in literal and figurative terms), and the expanded page count isn’t matched by expanded detail in the scenes, or in the backhistory of the characters (explaining why De Guiche hates Cyrano so much, for example).
Perhaps the most notably absent element is that of the romance scenes; when Cyrano’s standing beneath Roxane’s window, speaking in place of Christian, and wooing her, we’re told she starts to tremble and swoon, but the lines he’s speaking just didn’t seem substantial enough to me to elicit that effect. Maybe I just take a lot of seducing*, but I thought it seemed more like Roxane was being swept away by the words because the plot demanded it than due to the power of the words being said to her.
As I say, I have the idea that the novel may be aimed at teenagers (I found it in that section of the bookshop after a friend had alerted me to the existence of this prose version), but in all honesty I think they’d find it a bit unlikely as well; even when I was most awash with hormones and teen angst and uncertainty I doubt I would have been convinced by a lot of the stuff in this book, so I think it’s definitely a wasted opportunity.
If you want to read Cyrano, I’d recommend the Christopher Fry translation; if you want to watch it on screen in its original period setting, the Depardieu portrayal is about as good as it gets, but the modernisation of it by Steve Martin in ‘Roxanne’ is impressive, not least because he writes and stars.
And when I think about it, I first saw the Steve Martin film version when I was in my teens, and it worked for me, while I’m certain McGaughrean’s novel would have left me feeling distinctly unmoved.
*I’d love to put a footnote to this confirming or denying, but thinking about it I don’t think I can be so conclusive in a couple of lines. Feel free to e-mail in your agreement or disagreement (this invitation applies to women only. Sorry chaps).