You might be groaning at the thought of classic novels — the stuff of assigned reading lists and essay writing that you just don’t want to spend your time trudging through. Now, as an English major, I’m a fan of these old tomes myself, but even I can admit that there are days when you need something new. Luckily for you, I have a list of modern novels based on those hefty classics. Authors are bringing these old stories back to life in new, creative and completely unmissable ways! There’s been no better time to curl up with a good book, and these suggestions are a great place to start.
- 'Pride' by Ibi Zoboi
Ibi Zoboi does a beautiful job of bringing Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen into modern-day New York. Jane Austen’s most popular novel is one of the most well-known stories ever told in Western literature. It’s been adapted time and time again for the big screen, complete with gorgeous costumes, amazing scenery, and, of course, all the Mr. Darcy’s.
Ibi Zoboi reimagines the classic romance as a tale for bustling cities as she follows the story of Zuri Benitez, an Afro-Latina teenager struggling with the fact that her beloved Brooklyn neighbourhood is being gentrified. The rich Darcy family moves in across the road, and sparks fly as she clashes with their son, Darius.
This book captures all the swoon-worthy romance and the relatable family dynamics of Jane Austen’s novel, but situates itself unapologetically in the modern-day, grappling with pressing current social issues about race, class, wealth and privilege head-on. If you can listen to the audiobook, I highly recommend it, because the narrator’s wonderful performance really brings these vivid characters to life.
- 'These Violent Delights' by Chloe Gong
Okay, so Romeo and Juliet is technically a play and not a novel, but more important than that small detail is that Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous love story ever told. It’s so famous, in fact, that you might already be over it. How can the tragic tale of impulsive teens possibly be told in a way it hasn’t already? But trust me, Chloe Gong’s upcoming debut will quay your doubts.
Instead of fair Verona, Gong’s story takes place in 1920’s Shanghai. The reader follows the story of Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, heirs to two rival gangs whose generations-long blood feud tears the city apart. Add to that a mysterious illness and a monster, and Gong crafts a decadent and dangerous world that’s equal parts The Godfather and The Globe.
And of course, it wouldn’t be an R&J story without a love story, and Roma and Juliette’s is so intense and angsty and passionate it’s bound to draw you in. In this story, they’re not just enemies — they’re exes who’ve already had a forbidden relationship, which obviously ended tragically before the novel begins. Their tension and chemistry simmer all the way throughout this novel, making it impossible to stop reading.
Pre-order These Violent Delights at Target for $19.99.
- 'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys
!Spoiler alert! for Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic classic Jane Eyre: Jane’s love interest, the brooding Mr. Rochester, tries to marry her, but he can’t because he already has a wife who he keeps locked up in the attic because she’s, to quote the novel, “violently insane.” In Brontë’s original novel, this wife, Bertha Mason, mainly exists as a shocking plot twist to add to Rochester’s tortured backstory. However, in the acclaimed Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys fleshes Bertha — who she renames Antoinette Cosway — out as a complicated and interesting character in her own right, delving into her past as a Creole heiress in Jamaica and her journey to England after marrying Rochester.
The novel takes a one-note villainous figure and turns her story into a powerful and dynamic retelling by applying feminist and anti-colonial themes about racism and cultural displacement to a traditionally very white, anglo-centric story. Rhys turns a character from a caricature into a human, and it’s incredibly profound to read.
- 'The Song of Achilles' by Madeline Miller
The Iliad by Homer is one of the most frequently assigned books, especially if you're a literature major. But even if you're one of the lucky few who haven’t been made to read this Ancient Greek epic, Madeline Miller’s retelling will steal your heart and then break it.
If you’re familiar with The Iliad, you’ll know that the undeniably deep relationship between Patroclus and famed hero Achilles is instrumental to the story. In The Song of Achilles, told from the point of view of the character Patroclus, Miller places that relationship front and center, following the two from their first meeting as young boys, through their burgeoning friendship, into an intoxicating romance as they become lovers, companions and soldiers.
Miller’s prose is gorgeous. The style is so lyrical that you feel like you’re reading poetry, but still clear and simple. She captures the spirit of an ancient epic and, at the same time, makes the story feel so intimate and personal that you feel like you’re living in it. Fair warning though, the ending left me a sobbing mess for several hours, so proceed with caution!
Madeline Miller also has a second novel, Circe, which retells Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of the eponymous witch. It’s equally stunning, and a must-read if you decide you like her work!
- 'The Palace of Illusions' by Chitra B. Divakaruni
Unlike the other books on this list, The Palace of Illusions isn’t based on a work of western literature. Instead, Chitra B. Divakaruni retells the story of the Mahabharata by Vyasa, one of the most important Sanskrit epic poems in Hinduism and the longest poem ever written. Never fear — you don’t need to be familiar with the original epic to appreciate Divakaruni’s novel. The Palace of Illusions follows Panchali, one of the central female characters from the heavily male-dominated and driven original, and gives her a voice she never previously had.
This novel is incredible for the way it weaves mythology into its storytelling, but more so for the fact that it centers female voices and experiences in the kind of war story that all too often leaves its women as silent victims and collateral damage. Whether you’re interested in exploring Indian culture and Hindu legends more, or simply crave stories of interesting, complex and powerful female characters, this novel will transport you!
There’s never been a better time to check out of the real world and disappear into fiction for a while. So whether you’re a fan of the classics, or convinced they’re boring and need some convincing, give these books a shot and you’ll find yourself swept away in some truly beautiful storytelling!
The Her Campus National Editors write about products we love and think you’ll love too. Her Campus has affiliate partnerships, so we get a share of the revenue from your purchase. All products are in stock and all prices are accurate as of publication.