Something has been sitting guiltily on my shelf for longer than I care to remember – and no, it’s not this blog (though hi, yeah, I know, long time…). It’s my copy of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ (try saying that with a mouthful of Maltesers) epistolary classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, about the scheming seductions of two French aristocrats, first published in 1782. Have I cracked its cover? No. But I doubt Pierre will be too perturbed to learn that, given that his story has endured through the centuries, adapted countless times – chief among them, in my mind at least, via one of my favourite films of all time, Dangerous Liaisons. Stephen Frears’ 1988 adaptation starred the glorious pairing of Glenn Close and John Malkovich, with a supporting cast equally as fantastic – Uma Thurman, Keanu My Catnip Reeves, and the luminescent Michelle Pfeiffer. Ever since I first saw it, the devious, sexy, deliciously cruel exploits of the vengeful Marquis de Merteuil and her amoral co-conspirator, playboy Vicomte de Valmont captivated me. They realise too late that love is more powerful than revenge, that they’ve manipulated their own emotions, and it all ends in powerfully romantic tragedy.
But it was another adaptation that recently grabbed my attention – this stunning retelling of the story with one genius twist. Instead of 18th Century aristocratic society, Sophfronia Scott’s Unforgivable Love is set among high-society African-Americans in late 1940s Harlem. The central characters are now transformed into the utterly charming scoundrel Valiant Jackson, and the cold-hearted beauty who is the only woman he’s yet to seduce, socialite and business doyenne Mae Malveaux. Scott immediately sinks us into the sweaty uptown streets, the black churches where it’s as much see and be seen as worship, and the Westchester retreats to which the affluent elite escape as the summer wears on. Her eye for detail and sense of character is commanding. It’s clear that this author knows and loves not only this story, but the place and the people she’s chosen to populate her version of it. While its focus is still on the schemes of the central pair, we also get glimmers of the socio-political climate (through Val’s admiration of Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in baseball, for example), and the particularities of African-American society at the time.
As the story goes, Val and Mae launch their mutually beneficial plans and to challenge and conspire with one another, with Mae promising herself as the ultimate prize. Val’s intentions to win over the heart – and body – of the loyal, moral, married Elizabeth Townsend are tangled with his promise to grant Mae revenge on her former lover by seducing the man’s virginal new fiancée Cecily — who is herself enamoured of another… Scott handles the classic tangled webs of lies and love with relish, and her keen eye for the time period means you’re entirely immersed. It’s rare to find a story focused on black American characters that – especially in a period piece – are wealthy, proud and allowed to be deliciously wicked and startlingly romantic in equal measure. It’s a gorgeous book to sink your teeth into, whether you’re familiar with Laclos’ classic or not. The fact that this adaptation began life as a screenplay has me desperate to see it up on the big screen; I’m already casting it in my mind (Mahershala Ali as Val, Susan Kelechi Watson as Mae…?). But in the meantime, read Unforgivable Love and be seduced by Scott’s fantastic adaptation!
Cringe Factor 0/5
Is it Hot in Here? 2.5/5
For the Love of Feminism! 3.5/5
Overall Tasty Goodness 4.5/5