The Great Night by Chris Adrian

This book is billed as a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sounds fairly ambitious. The original classic is far too much to mess around with lightly. I find it beautiful, haunting, magical, and surprisingly accessible; I think anyone and everyone should be able to enjoy a production of this play, which might not be true of all the bard’s work, no matter how wonderful. But I have to give Adrian full credit: I feel that he created something new out of it, definitely a recognizable retelling, but something new and beautiful in its own way, very different and very wonderful too.

Three young people, Henry, Will, and Molly, are all (separately) lost in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco at dusk on midsummer night’s eve. All three were on their way to the same party which none really wanted to attend; all three are tenuously connected without actually knowing one another; and all three are quite neurotic in their own ways. Meanwhile, Titania is grief-stricken, having lost her Boy to leukemia (and being unfamiliar with the mortal concept of death), and then having lost Oberon, who left her when they quarreled in their shared grief. In despair and resignation, she releases Puck from his bond of servitude, and he rages as the Beast throughout the park. Also meanwhile, a troupe of homeless aspiring actors meet to rehearse a musical play, but are separated, as the fairies come out to frolic, or flee Puck, or make mischief.

Chapter by chapter we get inside the heads of the three mortal lovers, and sometimes of Titania too. The character development is exquisite; I loved learning more about the histories of Will, Molly, and Henry, and gradually putting together the clues and learning how they’re interconnected and where their respective neuroses might have come from. The depth of these complex, nuanced, disturbed characters might have been my most favorite part of this book.

Titania gets substantially more development, too. The lengthened and deepened relationship with the Boy, and his battle with cancer, allow for her to mature and look outside herself in ways that a fairy queen would not normally be called to do. Even Puck gets a more significant personality, and desires of his own.

Part fairy tale – of course – The Great Night has all the magic and all the lavish scenery that Shakespeare’s Titania & Oberon could have wanted, helped along by the alternately lush & misty San Francisco parkland. As in the play, there are disturbing moments; but these are fully fleshed out. I guess the great difference here is that this is a lengthy novel (~300 pages) with all the exposition that comes with this format, and there is simply less opportunity in a slim play for this kind of development. But Adrian’s work is darker, and more graphic. (There is Sex. Seriously.) The ending is not lighthearted and happy as it is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Among the mortal characters, we meet a tree doctor; men and women recovering from the suicides of loved ones; and the mess that OCD can make of a life; the lovers are gay and straight but always damaged. But the worlds are so fully realized… and the three youth are so fully developed, I ached for them. When every chapter closed, I regretted leaving that chapter’s focus character, but was happy to reunite with the next.

This was one of those books I was very sorry to see the end of. I wish there were more. Luckily, Adrian has written other books!

I recommend The Great Night. Certainly nothing is taken away from Shakespeare’s masterpiece; but this is a different realization of the same story-skeleton, in a different format, and it is absolutely an accomplishment all by itself.

2 Responses

  1. […] The Great Night, Chris Adrian. Fiction. […]

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