The J.A.P. Chronicles by Isabel Rose

(Republished from Winter 2006)

Be warned: not every novel whose back cover uses Jane Austen’s name bears any resemblance to a Jane Austen novel apart from the language in which it is written. The J.A.P. Chronicles, for instance, has a back cover that reads as follows: “Sex and the City meets Jane Austen in a wickedly funny, razor-sharp novel that provides the ultimate insider’s look at glamorous upper-crust society.”

Problem 1: Sex and the City is defamed again; this book has sex, all right, but in ways that make a nice, normal reader cringe: molestations by religious figures and by camp buddies, destructive relationships—physically and emotionally, and extramarital affairs.
Problem 2: Where on earth any reviewer saw Jane Austen in this book I have no idea. If that is the draw that would lure you in, back away quickly from the shelf. This book doesn’t have what you’re looking for.
Problem 3: If this is the “ultimate insider’s look,” I’d rather stay an outsider.
Problem 4: What this novel offers is not glamorous at all, even if the characters do have money, or at least know (and use) people who do.

Thus far, I have faulted the claims on the back of the book. Now, on to the book itself.

It appealed to me on three levels: Jane Austen, Sex and the City, Jewish single women in their 30s. It failed on every count. As I’ve already said, there is no link to Jane that I discerned. The sex is only disturbing, and nearly always unfulfilling and sometimes demeaning (NOT how it works on the show, as my regular readers will recall my discussions of in a review of Sex and Sensibility). Worst of all, for me anyway, was the disturbing, unflattering, and I dare say, unrealistic portrayal of Jewish communal life in New York’s elite realm. These people call themselves “reform” (which actually is not at all the same thing as secular, though most people use them interchangeably), but “observe” some rituals without any connection to the principles or meaning behind them. The women betray their friends, cheat their co-workers, use sex to get what they want (or try to), and commit a whole host of sins that would make any self-respecting Jew (or human) turn crimson. The fact that the book has so many of them and that they supposedly care about maintaining some “Jewishness” about them is completely ironic and ridiculous. As someone who grew up in a reform community, I have met hundreds of people, and not one, of which I’m aware, resembles these seemingly soulless women.

Now, to be fair, they have overwhelmingly suffered in some way that may have led to this egregious behavior, but even still, it’s at the hands of their own people. Yuck.

No Jane, no Sex and the City, no accuracy in the portrayal of Jewish life (or else we’re all in trouble). But if you can let go of all that, it’s an interesting and quick read with some laughs and some moments of shock. As the book progresses (if you can hold on that long), the characters do get fleshed out, more interesting, and ultimately, more sympathetic. As they do so, they become closer to each other as well as to the reader, which leads to a fairly satisfying ending.


Published in: on August 20, 2018 at 7:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Austensibly Ordinary by Alyssa Goodnight


Our heroine is a high school English teacher who feels “jealous of the lives of fictional characters” and thus, according to her friend Ethan, “glamorize[es] an era before indoor plumbing and take-out” (1). She lives in her newly divorced mom’s backyard, feels her life is too predictable, and has surprisingly flawed pronoun usage for an English teacher (“Gemma was sixteen months older than me” 9). Occasional split infinitive (“I needed to mentally switch gears” 61) and cynical attitude about teens (“a bunch of jaded seniors” 62). On the other hand, she clearly understands the plight, turning to Glee on her DVR before “succumbing to the never-ending paper trail of high school English” (63).

She’s being Emma, trying to fix up her mom rather than focus on herself.
How can our heroine think she’s not interested in her smart Scrabble companion Chavez when she acknowledges he looks “cute . . . Sexy, even” and when she goes to quite a bit of effort (putting a “shirtless hardbody” on her “computer wallpaper . . . Just for his benefit,” for instance”) for him (16-17).
By the end of chapter 2, I understood how clueless our heroine is, trying to be a “femme fatale” when she is “so darn cute” her best friend says she has been waiting since they met for said heroine “to break into a musical number” (26, 24). Simultaneously, she wants to see if best friends “Courtney and Ethan could play nice together,” when both of them—and we—see that Ethan and Cate should be playing more than Scrabble together (27).
I didn’t, however, quite see the link to Jane Austen.
Oh, come on. She says she “didn’t like to fight with Ethan” because “it rocked (her) world,” and she has no idea she really likes him? (29)

They find a mysterious journal—this sounds familiar . . . I KNOW I’ve read this before—there’s a key, and when she turns it, the journal expands and goes all the way back to Austen’s entries! But 2013—looks like I have a little mystery of my own. Well, duh, I read the same plot line in the same author’s Austentatious. Though I enjoyed it then, I think a new book deserves a new twist.
“If I were an author”—would an English teacher really say that, knowing that the word author links a writer to a particular book? (35)

The journal edits her words so only a message is left behind. I know I have read this twist before; where?
In a way, I appreciated our heroine’s comment, shortly after she reads what I assumed would be the first of several altered messages in the journal, that “the sudden knock on [her] door was way too clichéd, but it sent [her] heart ricocheting around cartoon-style all the same” (41).

Link to Austen: she’s teaching Emma, and sometimes she makes connections between the lesson in class and the lesson in her life.

She’s not so far gone that she doesn’t consider “Maybe Ethan was the answer”—but her need for a sidekick, not for a boyfriend (42).
Then, when her mom says no—directly, mind you, without room for interpretation—our heroine says she’ll set it up” anyway. The thought crosses her mind that she wishes Ethan could be there to “help smooth over all the awkward moments,” but it doesn’t occur to her that HE is the “perfect match” that is “hidden in plain sight” (67, 64).
It’s hard not to like this heroine who drinks hazelnut coffee, grades a lot of essays, and likes men with muscular thighs.
There’s a weird mishmosh of Austen hero analysis. When Cate contemplates Ethan’s secret situation, she first thinks of him as “Pre-Smackdown Darcy, before he gets a taste of the force of nature that is Elizabeth Bennet,” but then reflects that there is “an element of Frank Churchill I this too” in the sense of “keeping secrets” (135). Now Cate longs for a “Knightley” (why, oh why, does anyone who has read the book leave out the “Mr.”?) who has “never been fooled” and who is “never more than a brisk walk away” (135).

She’s an idiot for such a smart girl. Almost moments after an amazing guy goes home after having satisfied her in every way multiple times, she calls a different guy to accompany her to an event? Why?
And when I thought she couldn’t make a stupider choice, she misinterprets what the journal tells her and tries to set up said guy with her other best friend. Why?!

Why do I understand the ghost’s identity right away, but Cate, yet again, is clueless? Really cool the way everything comes together at the end of that scene.
Maybe our heroine being dense is a good thing; it is likely the reason why Jane must exit her usual journal mode and instead appear through “visitation in a hotel bathroom” (167).

What is a burner phone? (Like a secret, not real one, or just for special dating calls?) Whatever a burner phone is, its fate here is to get “unceremoniously tossed in a Dumpster” after our heroine learns her lesson (200).

I liked the scene in which her students notice the guy who likes her, and she contemplates that “the kids are too damn perceptive” (200). When she has to stop playing the Paltrow and Northam Emma, she describes the schoolbell as “hurtling us unceremoniously back to the twenty-first century” (201). Exactly.

Published in: on July 24, 2018 at 3:13 am  Leave a Comment  

North by Northanger by Carrie Bebris

Note to readers: Forgive my delay in posting! All my new Jane Austen now is designed for toddlers, and while I have much to say on that delight, for now, I’m reposting a review (that originally appeared in JASNA-SW’s newsletter) of a more mature work.


I had been saving this book as a special treat for myself for this spring, post-research papers and AP exam. Even I couldn’t have imagined how much I would love reading it.

Everything is handled well: the language, the relationships between characters, the little details that only a person who has read the novels several times, and closely, would notice, but that make all the difference. If I weren’t concerned about the overuse of asyndeton, I could easily list here every detail I loved about this book. Instead, I will highlight some of its strengths.

It is funny. Lizzy is now pregnant, and she and her loving husband are having a running spat about the gender of the child. There are jokes about possible names for the child: Nancy Darcy, Quincy Darcy, Chauncey Darcy. Though the reader doesn’t know until the end, the name they ultimately choose for the baby is perfect—on multiple levels. It is a beautiful way to turn humor into meaning, and to conclude this satisfying experience.

The characters are real. I always love Bebris’ mysteries, but the magic never fails to surprise me. By the end of chapter one, I was hooked. I cared about her version of the characters and really believed their love. Bebris does what so many Austen “sequel” writers attempt to do, but she, I think, really does capture the spirit and language of the characters that we know and love/scorn. Here she does this to the letter with not only Lizzy and Darcy but also Lady Catherine, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Wickham, and a whole host of Northanger Abbey characters.

The relationships we would have loved to see in the novels between characters in different novels finally come to be: Lady Anne Darcy and Mrs. Tilney (both dead before the Austen novels begin), Henry and Catherine Tilney and Lizzy and Darcy, even Lady Catherine and Lady Dalrymple (the ladies are buddies in Bath). The traits we see in Austen’s characters express themselves clearly but subtly here—there are hints at who everyone is, but Bebris doesn’t hit us over the head with them. As a result, we feel clever for “getting” the twists and the references. I made notes to myself while reading and returned to them at the end to see which ideas were right and which weren’t. That is fun!

There are multiple mysteries. The reader knows she is receiving clues, but, like the characters, has to piece them together. Why does Lizzy keep dropping and misplacing objects? Why is Dorothy so eager to hear what Tilney says? Have the servants been drugged? What is the significance of that cane? The scent on Lady Catherine? Wickham is around again—is he at the center of trouble, or does it just always look that way? Are some of our forebears secret Catholics? Who is this Jenny servant, and why does she keep popping up everywhere? Is Lady Anne actually present (the latter mystery both begins and ends the novel, and I would be willing to debate with you whether Bebris answers it definitively).

There are real heroes and villains here, and they get what they deserve. Unlike in our world, where sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s what and even when you can, they don’t always get treated as such, in Bebris’ cleverly crafted one, things are different. The hero dismisses the arrogant patronizer of women and rides off into the sunset after his loved one’s treasure. The evil doers are universally recognized as such, and punished appropriately (pities to the people of New South Wales). Gut instincts in our heroine are almost always right, and the ridiculous but harmless people simply faint when they’re in the way, and thus are in the way no longer.

Bebris gives us the back story for Darcy’s parents, via letters. They fell in love over The Canterbury Tales and suffered a great deal before Anne’s death, but beyond that, there is too much intriguing here for me to reveal in this review. You simply must read the book—for that, for the great twist at the end (I should have seen it coming!), and for a thoroughly entertaining read.

I have, thus far, practically spilled my glee with this text onto the page and into your eyes. I do, however, have a complaint about an unpardonable flaw of this text: it prevented me from doing what I needed to do on several occasions. It delayed my sleep, my meals, and my laundry. It functioned as a procrastination-inducing monster that reached out and grabbed me into its clutches. I hope it grabs you, too.

*Ed.’s note: the omission of conjunctions.

(Republished from Spring/Summer 2007)

Published in: on January 2, 2018 at 2:34 pm  Comments (1)  

A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice

I’m always a little surprised when someone presents me with a Jane Austen variation about which I haven’t even heard, but I was pleasantly so when two former students, Ryan Kuromiya and Jake Zeleznick, brought it to me for my baby daughter at our annual reunion picnic earlier this week. Their comment was they wanted me to “start her off with good literature early.” Though Briella crawled away while I was still reading her page 1, I read it on my own the following morning in the few quiet minutes before another delightfully frenetic day began, and I can recommend it without reservation.

The adapters, Tess Gammell and Alex Goodwin, clearly know and respect Jane Austen and her text. They are also properly humble, giving front of the book space to the guinea pigs who star in the show but not to their own bios or even names, which finally appear at the end of the text after Jane Austen’s and after a wish that readers, if we have “fallen a little bit in love with guinea pigs as well as with Mr. Darcy” as a result of their little book, consider “supporting [a] local rescue center.”

The text itself honors Austen as well, maintaining her three volume structure and keeping as many of the lines as the authors could reasonably fit into this type of adaptation. The structure is consistent and easy to follow: the text appears on the left, formal and eloquent like Jane’s with occasional simpler summary sentences and a small relevant picture of something (e.g. a violin on the page describing the Netherfield Ball or a soldier’s drum on the page introducing Wickham); a photo of guinea pigs dressed in period costume appears on the right with a quotation, either of Austen’s narrator or of one of the characters, unattributed.

The photos are adorable, largely because the guinea pigs are, and I say that as someone not particularly fond of rodents in any shape or form. My favorites included the shot of Lady Catherine in a ridiculous multi-colored costume with hat larger than she is and the close-up of Elizabeth behind a comment on the inability to describe her fine eyes. In the two failed proposals, Elizabeth is higher up than the man and therefore looks like the authority figure.

I missed Mr. Bennet here, but that’s really the only flaw I could find with this charming adaptation. It isn’t really designed for children, but my own may get to enjoy it a little before the general public would (okay, the general public probably won’t be purchasing this text). And you, dear reader, will definitely find it worth a few quiet minutes one morning before the world makes its demands, however pleasant, of you.

Published in: on July 19, 2016 at 9:19 pm  Comments (3)  

Pemberley Manor by Kathryn L. Nelson

I’ll admit that when Diana first handed me Nelson’s new tome, my thoughts were less than 100% enthusiastic. Yet another Pride and Prejudice sequel? What more could possibly be done with the characters we know and love that would be believable and heartwarming and in character with the spirit of Austen’s novel?

I was well-rewarded for my reading efforts. In this version, which starts at the wedding ceremony, it is not so easy as “happily ever after.” Darcy’s parents’ unhappy marriage (a prequel, if you will, to our P&P) has led to his estrangement from his father (prior to the death of the latter), his denial of the truth about his mother, and a reticence to broach any of these topics with his similarly lonely sister, Georgiana. We see Darcy suffering from the unhappy ghosts of his past, and of course it falls to our Lizzy to help him confront and banish them, without pressuring him to do more than he feels at any given moment.

There are some delightful new characters, but not too many to obscure our enjoyment of their presence. The Alexanders, for instance, are Darcy’s version of the Gardiners, except that his mother has somehow led him to rebuff them until Lizzy enters his life. Just when Elizabeth most misses her father and Darcy wishes he knew more about his own, Mr. Alexander, in all his paternal glory, comes to help them. Trevor Handley is a character of intrigue whose plight parallels Darcy’s, but then veers sharply in its own course. The novel also has some quite beautiful uses of figurative language that most modern sequels do not attempt. A few are potentially hackneyed (“Darcy and Elizabeth rested for a moment at the top of the long stairway they had climbed, little realizing that a mountain still lay ahead”), but several I found uncommonly fresh (Mr. Bennet prefers “the rich tapestry of a good book to the coarser fabric of society”; Lizzy’s love for her husband is “as impossible as the rising and setting of the sun, and as unlikely to end”). Lizzy has a line that made me laugh aloud (perhaps in contemplation of my own nature): “I have never been able to master my faults for more than a short interval.”

That is not to say there are no awkward, seemingly inappropriate clichés and modernisms. Phrases such as “women of their dreams” and “let it go” seem not quite to fit, and Lizzy calling Darcy “Will” may be going a bit too far for many Janeites. A few scenes just seem unlikely: Darcy physically hitting someone who hurt him emotionally, Lizzy rocking miserable Darcy to some state of peace, characters reacting to an “alternative” lifestyle with open-mindedness in the 19th century. My largest complaint, excuse the pun, is that this book is just too heavy! Physically, that is; I had difficulty holding it up with one hand. Unpardonable.

There are also some interesting explanations of events and shifts in feeling that occur in the original novel. Elizabeth finally tells Darcy, for instance, the moment she actually fell in love with him. We now come to understand that several servants at Pemberley were concerned he might marry Caroline Bingley. (At first I thought it odd that they don’t know their master well enough not to suspect him of such ill judgment, but then it turns out they were right, and he had entertained the thought!). Darcy’s reserve makes sense as a result of psychological trauma in childhood: it’s not arrogance then, but insecurity, that causes him to shy away from people he doesn’t know. In his arc in this text, Darcy finally conquers his anger once his strategy of storming out of tense situations hurts those he loves most dearly.

Nelson deftly handles several key interactions between our characters. The socializing at the wedding feels just like it would have if Austen had written a sequel. Though Lizzy and Darcy’s first moments together are not anything Austen would have given them, or we’d expect, these moments provide the impetus for us to explore further what made Darcy who he is, and how Lizzy’s presence will change Pemberley—for good, and for the better. Jane Bennet knows her sister so well—well enough to coax her to talk by making Elizabeth worry about Jane and then defend Darcy. Caroline Bingley is bitchier than ever—but Colonel Fitzwilliam is given the enviable task of making her eat crow.

As the novel progresses, Nelson has the Bennet sisters transform Caroline (details not to be disclosed by me) in a way that seemed unbelievable to me—at first—but within a few pages, I found myself really touched by the change (which means I must have started to believe at some point along the way, so kudos to Nelson for her fortitude in making that work). Nelson nicely develops Georgiana’s character—and her relationship with her older brother and the other new people in her life. Most significantly, Nelson takes Austen’s statement about Lizzy livening Darcy and makes it come to life: we can see him attempt humor and irony the morning immediately following the wedding (of course, Elizabeth doesn’t yet understand that he’s doing that, but it’s hilarious because we know). Lizzy, in turn, is more self-aware, less likely to judge immediately, and more willing to hold her tongue and to find the right, rather than the first, words.

Lesson-wise, a primary theme comes from the mouth of Jane Bennet, but accurately reflects the philosophy of both Bennet sisters—and, I’d argue, all happy people: “Happiness,” she tells Caroline, “is a choice we make for ourselves.” Nelson shows us that even with the right man, a woman must daily choose happiness in order to secure it.

I recommend that you choose happiness—by reading this book.

(republished from Spring 2008)

Published in: on April 10, 2016 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  

Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love by Patrice Hannon

Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love by Patrice Hannon, republished from Winter 2006

The premise of this work is that Jane Austen is somehow receiving letters from modern-day would-be heroines seeking her advice on love and life. All Jane’s responses are punctuated by actual passages from the novels and juvenilia to lend legitimacy to the responses, so while we get interesting modern problems, we are also treated to delightful snippets from our favorite books.

Overall, it is a clever idea and fairly well executed, aside from inevitable choppiness, one description of “Sex and the City” as being unrealistic (hmmph), and several paragraphs that feel just a bit too long for modern-day readers. Jane is, in essence, Dear Abby, with similar sharpness of tongue and strong views about the choices her correspondents make. In one of the early letters, for instance, Jane responds to a would-be heroine who fears she’ll die if she doesn’t marry soon; Jane tells her that she needs some “self-command” rather than the “hysterical raving” of the Bronte sisters, who set women “back hundreds of years with stories full of improbable circumstances and unnatural characters.”

The journey to heroine-ship relies on several important “rules” for being a heroine (such as “a heroine does not try to win a hero’s love” and “you will only recognize your true hero when you know yourself”), but most important is remembering to distinguish reality from fantasy. Jane advises every would-be heroine to read the novels again in order to become “as much a heroine as…Catherine, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma, Anne, and yes, even Marianne,” but this book takes us through the novels and forces us to apply the principles therein to modern-day relationships. Though some of the would-be heroines have problems that even a dating simpleton should recognize as too obvious to require guidance (“I’m in love with a guy who hits on my sister”—are you serious? Does any self-respecting woman ever consider such a man seriously?), most of the issues Jane addresses here deal with far more subtle themes, and the modern single woman looking to be a heroine in her own life could use the lessons.

The crux of Austen’s argument (as channeled by Patrice Hannon) comes near the end, after she takes us through her stories and wrings forth lessons from them for our benefit. In a somewhat ironic twist, Jane cautions us that “an essential element in the achievement of that perfect felicity [her] heroines enjoy is the conquering of romantic illusions and expectations.” Besides sounding disturbingly like my mom, Jane here asks us not to judge the men we date by comparing them directly to Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, but instead to assess our relationships with our men using the principles of compatibility established in Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Jane urges us, as in the novels the real Jane urges her heroines, to “choose happiness” and reminds us that, more so in our times than in hers, women have the power to do so—hero or not.

[Ed.’s note] Author Patrice Hannon writes to us with the exciting news that Plume will be bringing out a new edition of DEAR JANE AUSTEN in July. The Publisher of Penguin, Kathryn Court, came into Patrice’s antiques store on Bleecker Street in November, bought a copy, and came back two weeks later to talk to her. A great New York story.

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 8:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma by Diana Birchall

When I first heard that Diana’s book was coming to Barnes and Noble, I was very excited—not only for her, but also for all of us. Though I had heard of the book for years, the expensive hardcover editions never quite found their way to my library, and I was left only to imagine what story remained untold to me.

So last week I gleefully found my copy at my local B &N. I started Diana’s book immediately, hoping I’d like it. By the end of chapter one, I was so engrossed I had temporarily forgotten that it was Diana’s book! Several parts of the story hooked me right away: the warm sibling bond between Henry and Jane (reminds me of my relationship with my own dear brother), the potential makings of Chloe (the “good” Wickham daughter who manages to develop moral character despite all odds), the doughty Kitty (who doesn’t fare so well, but whose gardener husband I found endearing), and the horribly bitchy “new” Lydia, Miss Wickham, who wants to trap Fitzwilliam, the eldest Darcy boy.

Diana is a master of dialogue. So vivid and so realistic, it immediately endeared me to Chloe and distanced me from Bettina. Even an occasional surprising phrase that may have more meaning that Diana intended—“their ability to give tongue”— that stopped me in my tracks, only did so momentarily. I soon recognized the depth of cleverness here: the Wickham sister we like is in a position similar to Elizabeth’s before Darcy saves her sister’s, and therefore her own, reputation. The Darcy son most like his father is the one who tries to save the shameful product of the Wickham union from self-immolation, just as Darcy and the Gardiners did years before for her ancestors. The parallels don’t end there. The powerful Elizabeth/Lady Catherine exchange when Lady Catherine suspects an alliance between Lizzy and Darcy is revived here in the Collins’ new
home—the same place it occurred a generation earlier. Chloe, like her aunt Elizabeth, fights back, politely, and we admire her for it. This pride also keys us in—in case we were a bit slow before—to her appropriateness for Henry, just as Elizabeth’s zest proves her worthy of Darcy. And Mr. Collins once again gets to offend us, this time via Lady Catherine, with the suggestion that a heroine would be better off had her shamed relative died—Bettina standing in for her mother this time.

In addition to all the plot twists and clever parallels, Diana also has some fun in brief mentions. Kitty’s husband is a real gardener, or at least likes gardening. If we are to read the Gardiners as people who act in concert with nature, then this man, too, is morally wise. He calls his deity “the great Gardener;” thus Diana reminds us that our characters who enjoy the outdoors are the ones who understand what really matters. She also nicely gets revenge on Caroline Bingley; Caroline gets to marry at last, but her new surname is Babcock. Better to stay single, one might argue.

The only really sad moment in this story is Mr. Bennet’s passing, but even this moment, which brought me to tears, is done gently and calmly, to give as little pain as possible to all. I really think we could have missed this part (I didn’t want to see this!), but the plot wouldn’t work as well without Longbourne falling victim to the Collins, so I guess I can forgive Diana this one choice.

Especially because it’s so soon followed by Darcy’s laugh out loud comment to his son, about to “inherit” the Wickham family via his selected wife, that since Darcy has been burdened “this five an twenty years” by the Wickhams, he “shall be quite glad to pass them on to” his son. Since, as Elizabeth declares, “a good wife, you know, makes a good husband,” all Henry’s efforts—and all Darcy’s—are well worth their trouble.

(republished from Summer 2008)

Published in: on January 1, 2016 at 1:39 pm  Comments (6)  

Jane Austen for Babies

I’ve been on an amazing adventure since my baby girl was born in July, and though there hasn’t been much time for the usual Austen-related book reading let alone reviewing, I have recently read four Austen-related books designed for babies and have some thoughts to share.

Pride and Prejudice Cozy Classics by Jack and Holman Wang: 12 words and 12 pictures of felt characters to go with it. They do manage, I was surprised, to convey the basic story. It is rather a dull read for an adult, but that’s not the point of these books.

Little Miss Austen Sense and Sensibility: An opposites primer by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver: so this one is upfront that it is about opposites, not really about any story in particular. Thus, Empty and Full pages, one with an empty henhouse and one with a full one, need not bear any connection to the Austen tale. But maybe, since I wanted to introduce the little one to Austen, they should? Some pairs do (Big=Norland Park, Little=Barton Cottage). Why not all? I also thought it strange that the spoiler (Single and Married, with the names on the cakes) was not last, but the non-specific Day and Night were. Was the logic that this is a bedtime story? That everything ends with night? That parents of new babies are too exhausted to notice?

Little Miss Austen Pride and Prejudice: a counting primer by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver: same concerns as in the previous review that some pages are relevant to the original book (“2 rich gentlemen”) while others just aren’t (“6 horses”). Why? Pictures are cute, and the spoiler comes on the fourth page. This one comes with an optional playset with pieces from the story that stand up (pop out of thick paper), and I think we’ll have fun with this when she’s ready for it.

Goodnight Mr. Darcy by Kate Coombs and illustrated by Alli Arnold: Very clever. It takes the original story (Goodnight Moon, that is, not Pride and Prejudice) and parodies it on every page. Everything from the first page—“In the great ballroom there was a country dance and a well-played tune and Elizabeth Bennet—“ to the father saying “hush”—reminds me adorably of the classic my brother and I loved as kids (which I have in various forms for my sweetie, too). The color schemes, the rhymes, and the repetition are all delightfully parodied here, and people who know Goodnight Moon (so, everyone) will really appreciate this take on it. It also has many details from the Austen story (ex: “Mr. Darcy surprised by a pair of fine eyes”), and I was only slightly annoyed that the end spoiled “Goodnight Elizabeth Goodnight bride.” Does no one else want their kids to be surprised the first time they read the real Pride and Prejudice? Do we assume they already know? I didn’t know when I read it.

So this is what I have been reading lately—and I have never been happier.

Published in: on December 1, 2015 at 7:42 am  Comments (2)  

Lydia Bennet’s Story by Jane Odiwe

It’s always a good sign when Diana Birchall is quoted on the cover of a book. And though, at first, Lydia’s observations here didn’t feel quite like Lydia’s would, the text does ultimately make Lydia into a sympathetic character, one a lot more like her sisters Jane and Elizabeth than Pride and Prejudice would leave us thinking she could be. Lydia does many things of which her sisters would be ashamed. She flirts with her own family’s servant, she kisses some guy at a dance, and she does things just so her sisters will be jealous. At the same time, in this text, the narrator has the girl thinking more deeply than I think she would. On the first page, for instance, Lydia confesses that Mr. Wickham “has a way of looking into [her] eyes which [she finds] most disconcerting,” which seems to me something Lydia wouldn’t think. Later, Lydia wishes that her father would say something nice about her; at least this time, the narrator acknowledges the incongruity between her words here and her behavior in P&P: “Despite the appearance Lydia gave of caring little for his remarks . . . .”

Her diary and the omniscient narration of the events in it also reveal more than I want to know about the character whose scenes, even in P&P, are my least favorite. We perfectly understand now how Lydia and Kitty came, with money enough for shopping, to greet Elizabeth on her journey home from Hunsford; their father needed them out of the house, and was willing to pay to make sure that happened. We learn about how Lydia came to dress Chamberlayne in women’s clothes, how much like her mother Lydia really is (she gets “flutterings” all over her when she’s excited about Brighton, for instance), how Wickham really gets to Lydia (by embarrassing her), and how Lydia decides that Wickham is no longer the “rightful property” of Elizabeth.

Ultimately, what this work achieves, more than the capturing of the P&P Lydia‟s voice, is the development of sympathy for her in an audience that is unlikely to begin reading the work with a shred of any. That development begins early on, when Wickham first offers to show Lydia around Brighton and she does not plan to take him up on his offer. Our feelings devolve into real pity when an eligible bachelor with money and interest in Lydia kisses her badly. It isn’t her fault, after all, that Wickham knows what he’s doing, and this other poor shlep does not. It is Wickham who interrupts an unfulfilling make-out session between Lydia and this handsome captain—and Lydia and Wickham slap each other. The violence and unkindness that will soon dominate their relationship is lightly hinted at here—but Lydia, in her silly 15-year-old naiveté, doesn’t see it.

So Lydia feels repulsed by the touch of a man who really could court her, and it’s almost inevitable that Wickham sweeps in and seduces her. When Wickham finally kisses her—in a dark cavern, away from all their friends, mind you—Lydia is not wholly innocent (she has blown out the candle), but she is not prepared to handle the treachery of this man, and for that, we feel for her. Wickham continues to court another woman, runs out of money, tells Lydia he needs to leave town immediately, and is offered this gift: Lydia has a little money and will give it and herself to Wickham, but only if he takes her with him. He, with sighs, agrees, and Lydia has duped herself into thinking he proposed marriage. We—and he—know he plans no such thing. “Poor, stupid girl,” indeed.

The interaction with Darcy offers reasonable explanations. Why was Lydia not home when Darcy first visited Wickham? She was finally permitted a shopping excursion. Also interesting is that Wickham knows he needs Darcy’s help, and he actually instructs Lydia to be polite to Darcy, but she doesn’t want to. We see Wickham for exactly what he is, but Lydia, though she is learning, still doesn’t.

The wedding day offers moments of pride—in Mrs. Gardiner, whose performance in scolding Lydia is awesome, and revulsion—in Lydia, who fake cries after getting angry at Wickham for threatening to “thrash” her if she tells anyone Darcy was at their wedding. This is a disgusting spectacle. Still, the reader feels sorry for Lydia, who has been threatened by her new husband on her wedding day, until she wonders how her poor mama can“get rid” of Elizabeth and Jane, whom, she predicts, will soon be old maids.

Just when you’re thinking that maybe she deserves her fate after all, Lydia catches Wickham cheating and unrepentant, and the whole charade begins to crumble. Once Lydia sees that he has never loved her the way she loves him, she begins to change into someone we can not only tolerate, but also want to be happy. Lydia is soon admitting—but only to her diary—what a huge mistake she made, and now she assumes full responsibility for it, even as she decides to show the world only her former, giddy, gloating self so that no one triumphs over her.

This sudden and painful self-awareness and isolation make her attractively sympathetic now, and not just to us. A handsome brother of a friend of Lydia’s keeps appearing, and though Lydia thinks he’s constantly judging and scorning her, we recognize these behaviors from a certain laconic gentleman and know what should happen. Thanks to an additional act of Wickham’s past, all we have to do is wait for it to unfold, and the waiting is so much fun to read.

I can see now why Diana so enjoyed this romp. Only a woman who felt the need to bring some attention to Mrs. Elton’s side of the story could so thoroughly sympathize with Odiwe’s plight in making us care about Lydia as anything other than her sisters‟ sister, but much to my surprise and enjoyment, Odiwe—like Birchall before her—succeeds.

(republished from Spring 2009)

Published in: on November 3, 2015 at 9:56 am  Leave a Comment  

Another Little Piece of My Heart by Tracey Martin

This modern teenage version of Persuasion begins with an interesting parallel to Sir Walter Eliot’s studying of the Baronetage: “Some people are like a venereal disease.” Jared Steele, musical phenom, is our protagonist’s ex, and she is having trouble listening to him sing on the radio. In southern Connecticut, the “much-whispered but never-confirmed” truth is that Claire is the subject of his songs. Best friend Kristen does her best to distract Claire from Jared’s music and to focus on her own. Claire’s band, Stabbing Shakespeare, does well with the “Jared Steele sucks” theme but not much else—yet.

The cast of characters parallels Persuasion decently but incompletely. Claire’s mother has been gone a year, and she has a sister, April, who seems more conventional but a little too whiny for our taste (Mary Musgrove, of course). In a span of five minutes, her sister drops the news that they are moving, and her father, that he has invested her “college money in a fun that has since run dry.” He is being followed around by his preposterously made-up secretary, Nikki (Mrs. Clay), though he no longer has a business needing her assistance. Her dad is Sir Walter Eliot, and they need to “retrench” by staying with family in New Hampshire (while their new condo at home gets its kitchen renovated). He seems as bad as the original, but I’ll leave you to discover what surprises he provides for us and for his daughter. Eliot Beach serves as Bath.

Claire describes falling in love with Jared. He does sound pretty perfect for her (and pretty Captain Wentworth to us)—teaching her guitar and praising her musical talent, volunteering with underprivileged kids, and soon, writing songs with her. She broke up with him because her dying mother asked her to. That kind of leaves Lady Russell out of the story, unless we consider Kristen a sort of Lady Russell figure in that she is the only one who really knows about Jared. Cousins Lisa and Hannah are the Musgrove girls (Louisa and Henrietta), and they don’t know the history between Jared and Claire.

Claire is a disciplined heroine, stopping herself from thinking two days in a row about Jared, seeking a job so she doesn’t take out her father’s flirtatious secretary Nikki in a “murderous rage,” and not complaining about having “to give up [her] spot in Brown’s freshman class.” In Eliot Beach, Claire gets a job in a small grocery store. Her father snobbishly disciplines Claire for getting a “menial job” he says is “beneath” her, while he seems content doing nothing at all. On her first day at work, Claire gobbles down some fruit for lunch, and then, bam, stares smack into familiar blue eyes . . . Jared is there, in the market, where she least expects to see him.

This young lady, like Anne Elliot, is quite aware of her own heart and actively working to understand her reactions to the world around her. She feels he wronged her by writing about her badly in his songs; he feels she wronged him by choosing her snobbish family over him. Though she thinks she’s “supposed to be furious at Jared,” she instead recognizes that she cares more than she should what happens to him, so she tries to “stuff” those feelings “into the darkest, coldest recess” of her soul. Claire’s dad, meanwhile, has changed his tune with respect to a young woman going out with Jared, which angers Claire, who had to sneak around. Claire gets roped into attending a concert—on a double date with her ex and her cousin. Before that, though, she confronts her dad about his expectations and treatment of her and of Jared. She is learning how to speak up for herself and for her choices.
In her effort “to prove” herself, Claire enters a local battle of the bands. Her journey will include transitioning from “mere musician” to “performer,” but first she needs the confidence “to perform on [her] own.” At this point, however, her favorite Janis Joplin song is “Piece of My Heart,” which she has made her “anti-Jared anthem,” and one of her bands’ songs includes these lyrics: “I’m stabbing Shakespeare, burning Austen in the fire I’m strangling Cinderella, and all the other dirty liars.” She has some distance to go before she can forgive, understand, and be happy.

Jared is really a nice guy and, in fact, has trouble dealing “with all the public attention” he gets as a Grammy-winning musician. After all the tension between them, Claire at least allows Jared to make her laugh with an inside joke, and she laughs so hard her “stomach hurts.” I could feel the tension break. Shortly thereafter, Claire realizes that she agrees with other people’s demands too often, and maybe she “should have held firm” instead of breaking under her “parents’ pressure and dump[ing] Jared.” There is no clear Lady Russell figure, but she’s clearly discussing the power of persuasion.

Cousin Lisa is a lesbian and a sophomore at UNH. Her best friend Mike is hosting a party. (He turns out to be Jared’s friend, so he could be Harville or Benwick.) At the party, she meets Zach Stevens (Mr. Eliot), who smells like beer and makes her temporarily forget Jared. (Link I’m not sure works: Hannah is smoking a lot; what’s the equivalent in Persuasion? Taking unnecessary risks? ) On another outing, Hannah ends up flirting with Mike instead of Jared (so Mike must be Captain Benwick). But of course that’s followed by a fall, and Claire quickly takes charge, like Anne before her, to get Hannah home safely. Meanwhile, April is researching how to poison the Mrs. Clay character.

Now at this point I will say I was confused by the choice: the Hannah character should be Henrietta, and it should be Lisa, Louisa, who falls down, and then falls for Captain Benwick, but that gets changed for no clear reason. Captain Harville could be any of these guys. Are the aunt and uncle supposed to be the model of a good marriage, and therefore the Crofts? They offer Claire advice and take care of her, but they aren’t linked to Jared in any way (though they know about their history, so maybe that counts?). There’s also no real Elizabeth Elliot, but no one really misses her. I kind of missed Charles Musgrove and the Musgroves in general—maybe they’re the aunt and uncle? That makes more sense, but how can you retell Persuasion without the Crofts? Charles Hayter could be Hannah’s supposedly gay friend at the start of the story, which is certainly a modern way to handle it, except that she, or at least Henrietta, ends up with him in Persuasion. Besides Persuasion confusion, there are also a couple grammar errors that detracted a bit from the fun of this 2013 creation. One example: “He doesn’t want to have to chauffeur April or I anywhere.”

Claire is pretty delightful, but she doesn’t always make perfect decisions, even apart from pronoun case. She reacts badly, for instance, to her band’s news that, after this gig, they “just don’t think it’s going to work out,” telling them that even that gig isn’t worth their time and realizing “everyone else gets to move forward” except her. At this point, the old struggle we knew early on she’d have to fight emerges. She believes she doesn’t “give off the same kind of aura” as a natural performer like Jared, so a solo journey is not an option. On another occasion, when it’s time to make out with Zach, she tries to get herself drunk enough not to be repulsed. That is not okay. Worse, she plans to drive home. For such a smart girl, she really fails on every count here.

Claire has moments of great maturity, too. She defies her father’s demand that she quit her job with no notice—and Jared hears it, so he learns she has learned when to be persuaded and when not. She, meanwhile, learns his real feelings about Hannah and what it is actually like being a star. When Claire catches Zach conspiring with Nikki, she makes two strong moves. The way Claire lets Zach know she knows is awesome here: via text message. He asks her out; she says no, but Nikki’s free; he says who is that again; and she says, you know, the one “whose mouth your tongue was in last night.” No way to misread that! Later, armed with the Nikki-Zach photos, Claire decides that her younger sister “needs a better role model in her life” than what she has, so Claire chooses to accept that job and not share the photos with her father.

The story climaxes with two shifts: 1) in the relationship between Jared and Claire, and 2) in Claire’s sense of herself as a performer. With respect to the first, it’s obvious to one of their favorite singers in a few minutes—and the reader, in a bit more time—that these two belong together. In a beautiful scene on the beach, they build each other up, each targeting the other’s dip in confidence with exactly the right evidence to prove they should have confidence. There is some lovely writing here, including Jared’s comment: “Your band didn’t break up, because you are the band.” Words she needs to hear—and to believe before she can take the critical step of performing alone.

Open mike night is exactly what the reader would want it to be—and more. And, just like in Persuasion, now that Jared Steele is doing so well, our heroine’s dad is happy to discuss his connection to the young man. There is a beautiful ending, followed by a kind acknowledgement of author Tracey Martin’s eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Baker, who made her “believe [she] should give this writing thing a chance.” You’ll be glad she did.

Published in: on October 1, 2015 at 1:34 pm  Comments (1)