Published September 2018 by HarperCollins / 386 pages
Opening sentence: “BATTLE OF THE BIG BROTHER BEAUTIES!”
I need to start this review with an admission: I have never read Vanity Fair. So the fact that The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp is a contemporary retelling of said book is a little lost on me. However, I have since become acquainted with the plot of William Makepeace Thackeray’s original (published in 1847) and can see how Sarra Manning has cleverly kept true to the story (there are some omissions, but this version is a shorter read than the original) as well as keeping most character names the same, so you can instantly see her updates (for example the Crawley family are now an acting dynasty, Lord Steyne is a Murdoch-style media mogul and Becky herself is an Instagram influencer, seen in all the right places and simply famous for being famous.)
Our title character, Becky Sharp is born to poor parents and orphaned at a young age. Her best friend Emmy is her opposite (in character and circumstance – she’s from an affluent family and is trusting and kind to Becky’s wary ruthlessness.) In this version they meet on Big Brother and become instant Z-list celebrities. Becky then has an enforced career change and finds herself the nanny of a v. famous actor (Pitt Crawley.) Becky marries into what she thinks is financial security, but things don’t run smoothly and she has to outwit everyone to keep herself where she likes to be – at the top.
While being a modern retelling of a classic, The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp is also a comment on the current cult of expendable celebrity. Literally anyone can claim to be famous with enough Instagram followers these days, but it is a fragile claim that can be erased with a misplaced #ad. It is fickle and shallow trait of our society, but actually it is not new. Vanity Fair showed that it happened in the 19th century too and I really enjoyed this parallel. Basically, people have always been vain and self-serving. Technology just means that today we have an easier way of broadcasting that fact.
As a random aside, I was listening to The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory on audiobook as I read this and found myself seeing a lot of similarities between Becky Sharp and Anne Boleyn (the second wife of Henry VIII who infamously clawed her way to Queendom, only for it to be her downfall.) Both are cunning, clever, ambitious and stop at nothing to achieve their ultimate goal of furthering their own place in the world. Both are very interesting characters that you probably shouldn’t like but you have to admire. Becky might be ruthless, but you want her to succeed against the odds and I was cheering her on as I turned the pages.
The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp is a witty, reference-packed read that made me laugh several times and brings a classic story to the modern day with flair and charm, while casting a cutting eye over current society and proving that whether it is 1847 or 2018, some things just don’t change and Thackeray’s original observation remains true: ‘All is vanity. Nothing is fair.’
I was kindly sent this book in exchange for an honest review.