First Impressions by Debra White Smith

This one was published in 2004, but somehow slipped under my Jane-dar, I realized later perhaps because it is Christian-themed, and very specifically so. Set in London, Texas, where “nineteenth-century attitudes thrived unchecked,” the story opens with Madelynne DeBloom (Lady Catherine), theater sponsor, reading the opening lines to P and P in her “Victorian mansion’s parlor” (why Victorian?) (10, 7). Lady Catherine calls upon Eddi Boswick (Elizabeth), a lawyer new to town, to analyze the opening lines (since she wrote a master’s thesis on Austen). Eddi hopes “to play the part of Jane” in the “new community play based on Pride and Prejudice” (10-11). Dave Davidson (Darcy) is there, too, “not thrilled to be cooped up . . . with . . . literary types,” at least from Eddi’s perspective (7). Calvin Barclay (Charles Bingley) is poking fun at Dave’s discomfort around all the women who seek his company. A tornado approaches as the cast takes a break for lunch, and Eddi overhears the usual conversation in which Darcy, defensive and piqued, says she “would have to be way more classy to keep [his] attention for long” (16). Since she, meanwhile, has been pining “for any signal of interest from the renegade rancher,” this comment is particularly painful for Eddi to hear (15). Then, however, this tornado isolates Eddi and Dave outside (with Dave trying to protect them both) just as the rain and subsequent illness of Jane do in the original, and both are struck by their physical connection.

After the tornado, everyone’s pretty shaken—Aunt Maddy, because she “was scared to death the tornado” got Dave (she’s much warmer than Lady C), Dave because he can still hear the roar of the tornado, and Eddi, because she saw “it take the roof off” the theater (28-29). This narrator provides us Darcy’s history much earlier, so we know he, too, is a relative newcomer to town, and he has been searching for people who don’t pretend to like him because they really want “his possessions” (23). He has “been on his own thirty-five years” and has memories of the “lost harmony and bitter battles” of his parents’ marriage (24). This Darcy knows right away what he did to upset Eddi, calling her short, prissy, and classless, and understanding she may well have “overheard his negative comments” (25).

Nonetheless, he doesn’t just apologize but actually makes things worse before they get better, and she’s no help either. Things heat up again when they start to use Elizabeth and Darcy’s lines—on each other, in regular conversation. This Eddie recognizes right away that Dave is “by far the better looking” between him and the Wickham character but almost moralistically reminds herself that, like money, “looks aren’t everything” (121). His skills with the text, however, motivate her to work harder on her lines, and many of their significant moments happen when they’re saying Austen’s words to each other.

Eddi and Dave have a lot in common. They both have an easier time with dogs than with each other and both moved “to this isolated little town where nothing much happens” to escape their pasts (86). They both get new haircuts—which will be on display for the first time in front the other at the same time. Both have been traumatized by the faulty marriage they grew up seeing. Both have a strange recurring predilection for cheese dip (210). When they see each other in church after not having seen each other for a week, they both lose “track of what song number they” are on (268).

Meanwhile, we meet the other key characters. I wasn’t thrilled to learn that Cheri Locaste, the Charlotte Lucas, “no-nonsense pragmatic who has never been accused of being a romantic,” is an English teacher. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a re-telling in which Georgiana Darcy is instead Darcy’s little brother (let alone named George Wallace). They go to the stand-in for Pemberley (“a sprawling, southern farmhouse” with a backdrop of verdant, pine-covered hill, a rose garden, a “pecan and pear orchard,” and about “five thousand square feet”) (41). It’s gorgeous, uses nature to its advantage, and is, according to big sister Jenny (Jane), Eddi’s “dream house” (41). Linda (Lydia), who takes valium but doesn’t always remember her birth-control pill, brings Rick Wallace and Andre Owens by. We assume one is Wickham, but the initials don’t match up exactly (as they do with the other characters). (Why?) Mary (Mrs. Bennet) can’t keep track of her “nerve pills” any more than Linda can keep track of “when she [is] supposed to start taking the birth control pills again” (184, 181). When we finally learn where George is, we are ready to take Dave more seriously. How does no one else know this? That his “lifeline proved to be Christ” is very specific and won’t resonate with everyone, but for Christians for whom this version is meant, I think it may (173). How could Rick be so without compassion? As we soon learn, because he’s selfish, greedy, and dangerously clever, even manipulating Eddi into paying his way to Hawaii (Brighton) to “protect” her little sister (197).

There are some, I’m not really sure how else to say it, weird expressions. When Eddi is upset to have to spend so much time with the obviously attractive Dave because they are cast as, surprise surprise, Lizzy and Darcy, she tells Jenny she’ll have to come “down with gangrene of the throat,” which sends them both into fits of giggles about Eddi’s “sick sense of humor” (56-57). (I, meanwhile, didn’t get the joke; is it a sexual reference? That seemed unlikely given the overtly religious nature of this version.) Also weird: they see “Pemberley” but not the “small brick building” outside in which Darcy spends so much time, and Eddi is so curious what he does there that she promises to “discover what lay between those walls—even if it took two years” (67). Why is two years the best representative of a long block of time? Also weird: when Eddi teases Jenny about her boyfriend Hal Gomez in competition with the new Calvin, Jenny says her sister is acting like Jenny is “some sort of polygamist” (74). That’s not really what a polygamist is. When Eddi gets bogged down by work, she “threaten[s] to hire a secretary for the first time” (163). Threatens whom? No one else is involved or even present. There are other odd turns of phrase, like “the undaunted honesty oozing from her soul,” (83) not wholly logical insults (Eddie tells Dave she values “people because they are created in the [divine] image”—is anyone not? How is that a put-down? 106), and ungrammatical language from our principals (why would such articulate people say “Aunt Maddy is waiting on you” unless Aunt Maddy were a waitress? (45) (Dave) At least they both do it (Eddi: “We were waiting on an invitation from the host” 47), so they deserve each other, grammatically. (Calvin does it, too, as when he tells Eddi that “the whole cast is waiting on the two of [them] to get married” 277). Even occasional attempts at poetic language (“the funnel’s suction yanked them from the limb’s grasp and tugged them toward the storm like a seductive lover” 22) seem awkward and out of place. When Dave tells Eddi she “still made [him] eat [his] own conceit,” I wondered, who speaks like this? (311) Also, why does the part call for Elizabeth to address Darcy as “dear sir” before they have reached an understanding? (316) Elizabeth would not do that (so even she is inconsistent in this version).

The text features many choices that defy logic, clarity, and consistency. Illogical: During rehearsal, Eddi hopes they’ll begin with “a scene” that doesn’t “feature[] her character” (140). How many of those are there in P and P? Also strange that Dave starts waltzing with Eddi at the end of the dance scene; I’d understand if that was to compensate for their not actually being able to discuss the Rick situation during the script, but that doesn’t happen here either. If Eddi does not know why Dave separated Jenny from his friend, why, when Eddi goes to talk to Dave about it, does she have a “hot defense of Jenny” followed by a demand to “know why he interfered with her and Calvin” (211-212)? Unclear: Though White Smith gives us Dave’s perspective right away, she leaves the mystery of why “haunting whispers . . . urge[] him into the small building” on his ranch (158). Though we weren’t suspicious in the way Eddi was, we certainly are curious. The text is awkwardly ambiguous at an important moment: “except this time, the fantasy didn’t end until Dave actually kissed her”—wait, the fantasy included a kiss this time, or the fantasy stopped when, in real life, Dave kissed her?! (142) Inconsistent: The narrator says many times Dave is “too lazy to exude the effort” to do one thing or another, but he also is focused on several different projects that require mastery (159). Which is he: lazy or diligent?

Logic aside, I really wasn’t prepared, even with all the church references, for Jenny’s comment, when discussing Linda’s lack of virginity, that she and Eddie “really need to pray for her” (113). Austen was a church-going, religious woman, but she avoids such moralizing in her stories, and they are stronger for it. White Smith does not leave religious ideology where it belongs, and though sometimes (sending the characters to church, having them sing in choirs) its intrusion feels harmless enough, other times, that choice causes problems for character motivation (and reader tolerance). When Eddi is “so worried about Linda,” for example, why doesn’t she tell her about Rick–or even fly there and get her? Instead, she just “barely” sleeps, calls twice and pray[s] for her protection”? (259-60) This isn’t Austen’s England: she could DO something. Even when they want to stop what they consider murder, Eddi and Jenny’s solution is to “start praying now that [Linda will] change her mind” (262). When Dave goes to save Linda, he tells her how lucky she is to have “two sisters who care enough about [her] to agree to pray” for her (283). Austen, a religious woman, never has her leads do that to solve an earthly problem. When Eddi and Jenny decide to get together for a weekend, Jenny says “it might even be a G-d-thing” (168). The big horror that Rick perpetrates here is encouraging Linda to have an abortion (and, by the way, reassuring her he’ll pay for it). Eddi thinks despairingly of “her niece or nephew discarded like a scrap of garbage” even within the first few weeks (261). Though I didn’t appreciate having these views foisted on me in a pleasure read, I certainly understand the view. I did not, however, think Eddi’s character consistent: when Jenny calls Eddi to tell her the “really bad news,” Jenny seems almost as jealous that Linda didn’t call her to tell her the news as upset about the actual pregnancy. Jenny is similarly divided: she tells Eddi to go to church to pray right away and then keeps her from so doing by insisting on hearing everything about Calvin because otherwise she’ll “chew [her] fingernails off with curiosity,” and she “just got a French manicure” (263). The biggest problem with Carissa (Caroline Bingley), who makes her first significant appearance about halfway through the story, is that she doesn’t care about “how committed” a man is “to his Lord or [to] his church” but is more like “a bloodthirsty hound who smelled more money and wanted it” (135). That is a strange image to put in Dave’s head since he is supposed to like dogs, and no hound seeks money.

At least Dave, when Eddi tells him what’s going on (in a nice parallel to Elizabeth getting the news about Lydia), asks if Linda wants an abortion without any overt judgment (270). Dave also understands that “this situation require[s] action”–yay! (271) There goes our hero! Eddi, meanwhile, has “delivered some pointed prayers in that church service” and “fully expected positive results”—even though she just told Dave she doesn’t “even deserve” for her prayers to be heard (274, 270).

White Smith does some solid work with the many parallels to lines and incidents. Eddi says of Dave, “I wouldn’t go out with him if he were the last man on the planet” when we know, of course, she will (82). There is very different timing, but that works interestingly. Since the Lady Catherine visit occurs before the first proposal, the Darcy character hears about it, and the Elizabeth character insults them both, so he’s left to defend them both. The proposal (which isn’t, really) also happens in what is, in essence, the Pemberley encounter, when Darcy finds the woman he loves on his own turf. Just when I was thinking, where is Mr. Collins? (the first time anyone has ever missed him, I’d guess), he shows up in the form of Conner (186). Colonel Fitzwilliam, by contrast, doesn’t appear. Instead, it’s Mrs. DeBloom who reveals Dave’s role in separating his friend from Eddi’s sister. But then she keeps in the comment that Eddi might “retaliate” by saying “such things” as “will shock” Dave’s relatives—who aren’t there, which I thought strange (212).

As bad as the constant flaws in logic are, they made me far less uncomfortable than White Smith’s bumbling with race. She doesn’t want to come out and say the two guys Dave has saved are black, so she beats around the bush with it by presenting one fact at a time and leading up to the actual words: they were abandoned by their parents, fell into the Houston gang scene, “left street life” with Dave’s help, are 6’ 6”, lead their community college basketball teams “to win third place in state,” and would not be people Dave would want to meet “in a dark alley” (271). Oh, and, by the way, not that it matters, but their names are Larnell and Klynell (272). And, oh, pages later, “their dark-skinned arms rippled with enough brawn to take down half a dozen men each” (279). I’m sure she means well, but this tiptoeing around race is worse than dealing with it directly. She also doesn’t know when to stop. We understood the “subtext” long before we hear about “Larnell’s white teeth flash[ing] against his shiny skin, the color of rich coffee” (280). I was just embarrassed for white people—but not nearly as much as I was when she adds the detail of “thick lips” (280). Stop, stop, I beg you. But she can’t seem to stop herself, and Dave says that “those two black, beautiful hulks” he brought with him will force Rick to marry Linda (284). (I don’t have the energy to explore whether in this world, someone will force him to stay married, and if so, what kind of solution is that? What kind of life will this baby have? How is forcing a man to go to church following the lessons of Jesus?)

I felt relieved to get back to illogical after those awkward pages. When Dave bursts in on Rick, he threatens to tell the police about the marijuana Rick “probably” has, and Rick immediately gets scared (281). That’s not how to catch someone. Rick could just have said he doesn’t if he knows Dave doesn’t actually know he does. When Eddi gets “the letter” (e-mail), she deletes it after she reads about Jenny and Calvin. When she retrieves and finishes it, though she is deeply moved by Dave’s losses and horrified by her own errors in judgment, she says nothing of either and writes back only about her own sister. Why? Then she’s surprised when, a week later, she still hasn’t heard from him. Again, why? When Dave finally takes a second chance, the narrator switches from dialogue to narration—”Eddi allowed the veil to drop from her heart and silently revealed her undying love”—and then right back to Dave speaking (310). Does he know she “revealed” her love? I sensed maybe White Smith was trying to replicate the Austen technique of leaving out the actual response of the woman, but it doesn’t work here.

A lot doesn’t. I know the target audience here is not one of which I am a part, but I have to give my Christian friends the honor of assuming they don’t like illogical stories any more than the rest of us do. Though I did care about the protagonists (White Smith somehow managed that even through my annoyance with them) and didn’t dislike the story enough to stop reading it (all 33 chapters of it—for those readers attuned to such details), I think a religiously-centered version could be done with more consistency and a bit more humor than this one is.

Published in: on March 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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