For some bizarre and disappointing reason, this book is known as Revenge in the U.S, rather than its delightful original title, which comes from this quote in The Duchess of Malfi: “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded which way please them.” A strangely appropriate and ironic title for a modern-day adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, which centres on the way one man realizes how little control he has over his destiny, but then forcefully reclaims it.
The story is a direct face-lift of Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel, set in England from 1980 to the early 2000s. Names have been given a punny facelift (Mercedes becomes Portia, get it?) or been switched into an anagram (Edmond Dantès is now Edward “Ned” Maddstone) Now, instead of being arrested on suspicions of being loyal to Napoleon, our hero is instead tangled up in an intricate IRA plot after falling victim to a promise made to a dying schoolteacher and a mean-spirited classmates’ prank. The island fortress is still there, but instead of a mad priest called abbé, we have the elderly, brilliant “Babe”, who secretly teaches Ned the ways of chess, backgammon, languages, philosophy, and literature. The interactions between Babe and Ned are the most enjoyable parts of the book; it’s almost like having an intimate mentor-to-pupil conversation with Fry himself, since Babe seems almost close to an Author Avatar in his witty turn-of-phrase, rich depth of knowledge, and wry observations of the world. This primes him for his eventual escape and revenge, aided by Babe’s knowledge of the passcode and account number of a well-endowed Swiss bank account.
Even though the story, save for the locations and times, is not Fry’s original work, he manages to make them his own through his writing style. For a man of his age, he certainly manages to capture the emotions and expressions of teenagers with crystal clarity: The diary of Ashley Barson-Garland, one of the masterminds of Ned’s fall from grace, reads like it could have been the Livejournal of a particularly arrogant fifteen-year old would-be intellectual. The love letters between Portia and Ned have all the saccharine quality of letters I remember writing to my boyfriend when I was a teenager rushed into hormonal overdrive. There are many different voices in The Stars’ Tennis Balls, but the shift isn’t at all jarring or distracting, it allows for deeper immersion into the story and encourages the reader to question whether Ned, re-entering society as Simon Cotter (“Monte Cristo” in anagram form) is right in taking his revenge.
Unfortunately though, the ending feels too rushed, and full satisfaction for Ned’s triumph and vengeance is never achieved. Revenge can’t be taken in haste, but it concludes very rapidly. Maybe that’s better for the world of this modern day Monte Cristo, the world of hackings, cell-phones, and live TV, but it could have lasted longer and had more slow, deliberate blows to the enemies. One other quibble is equally the fault of the source material: We’re aware that we’re supposed to enjoy the revenge, but with a bitterness to it, a question of, “is this really right?” But Ned’s targets for revenge become, by the end, so cartoonishly wicked and depraved, that any chance for sympathy or a bit of reflection on their lives before Ned re-enters them with a hunger for his brand of justice, evaporates completely.
I won’t begrudge a lack of perfection though. As it is, it’s fun, merry, and a delight to read, I finished it in one afternoon. It’s certainly a more rewarding journey than watching a silly film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, none of which are satisfactory, in my opinion.