Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match by Marilyn Brant

Beth Ann Bennet, 26, is gathering “sociological data” for Soc 369 with best friend Jane Henderson, planning to avoid getting “emotionally invested” in any way as she tries to follow the instructions of her professor (1). They’re using a website called Lady Catherine’s Love Match (2). And I thought jdate was too much. Beth Ann lives in Chicago, struggles financially, and has a six-year-old, Charlie. Two of the website’s offerings are Reverend Ezekiel Collins and Will Darcy. Jane encourages her friend to use the alias of Charlotte Lucas and to “have a little fun” with her profile (5).

Dr. William Darcy has a goofy cousin, Bingley McNamara, and practices in the Regents General Hospital. Bingley is a gambler whom Darcy accuses of just “overseeing [his] trust fund” (7). Darcy has an ulterior motive in on-line dating, too; Bingley will help fund Darcy’s clinic only with “evidence that (Darcy has) scored a little balance” in his life (8).

Darcy is a compelling hero right away: he makes a ninety-year-old woman feel special, and he has big dreams of helping people with his clinic. Beth is a bit less so but has potential as a single mom who lies—but has a conscience about it and does it to be able to earn a degree and thus more money to support her kid. Soon, though, we see her preparing to help (in the role of social worker) the same elderly people Darcy helps. Pete Wickham is Charlie’s dead-beat dad.

Their first date begins awkwardly—or Beth thinks it does, but we know that’s because she saw the arrogant cousin (why do this to Bingley), not the big D himself. Such a different take than P and P–there’s nothing remotely negative about Darcy (though he keeps putting himself down for having motives he isn’t sharing), and Beth is drawn to him immediately, but lies to him anyway. Darcy does plan their future without really consulting her, but it’s a lovely vision of possibilities.

Clever: Lydia is a young, single mother who received hardly “any prenatal checkups because she didn’t have a job” (26).
Not sure who characters Abby (Beth’s co-worker), Robby (also), Mr. Moratti (Charlie’s “stand-in grandmother”), and Anne Marie Dermott (“cantankerous” elderly patient) are supposed to be in P and P (32, 30).

Interesting twist: Beth actually hopes (not really) that her project won’t get into trouble because her “positive first impression” of Darcy was wrong! (35) it takes until date #2 for him to offend her; thinking she is someone different from who she is, he says that social workers are basically “cruise directors” who often “cause more trouble than they solve” (37). Now, we know he was raised by a single mother and no doubt had trouble with a specific social worker. We also know that Beth is a social worker and single mom. But each of them knows only his or her own secret, not the other’s.

Beth goes into this hoping to prove her assumption: “men had a tendency to avoid relationships where they had to raise another man’s offspring” (41). So frustrating how they misunderstand each other during the conversation about the children of single mothers! The whole time, Beth thinks he’s saying he’d want nothing to do with her or her child because they’re “left-overs,” and really he’s talking about himself and his mom! (46) But then—miraculously—he does tell her, and she’s immediately sympathetic, imagining both young Will and her own Charlie in that situation.

Typo: “I’m an impatient man who likes be where the action is” (42). We were doing so well.

Oh, ew. Then the Bingley situation reveals itself, and it’s pretty bad, even if Darcy is doing it for a good cause. Sample: Bingley says if Darcy brings Beth to his place in one month “with an engagement ring,” he’ll “double the money” he promised (55).

Great advice from Mrs. Hammond: “life don’t come smooth, but you make a path, even with all them rocks in your way, that you can walk on and be proud of” (59).

Meanwhile, Darcy is in talks with Dan Noelen, who heads the group where Beth works. That will be interesting. Just when things seem to be going well between them, Beth thinks Darcy pities single mothers and decides she can’t see him anymore—but doesn’t explain any of that to him.

In a rare moment of Bingley seriousness, he acts more honorably when he tells Will this is the first time he has seen his cousin “more concerned with a woman’s reputation than with [Will’s] . . . ambition to seek revenge on the system” (87). That is interesting. Jane, too, is doing some changed talking. (Since the two of them need to get together, too, this parallel works well.) Both of them have kind intentions and a much more responsible side by the end of the story than I had sensed at the beginning, Jane always bringing over good food and babysitting, Bingley really trying to free Darcy for love.

Then the moment we were waiting to happen happens, and Beth thinks everything has fallen apart; we, by contrast, think it’s going to get worse if she submits her paper on the experience, a paper in which she doesn’t quite lie but certainly doesn’t tell the truth. Both hero and heroine are forced to confront some unpleasant perceptions by people close to them at work about their own attitudes.

Nice little parallel to P and P: after their big “fight,” Beth goes to the Koffee Haus, hoping “she might run into Will Darcy there” but also hoping “she wouldn’t,” the same ambivalence Elizabeth Bennet feels at Pemberley when Georgiana is hosting the ladies (123).

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Published in: on June 2, 2015 at 6:12 am  Comments (1)  

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

With what eagerness did I await this treat, a joining of quite possibly my favorite modern writer (I devoured the 44 Scotland Street series and sung its praises to all my reading friends and some non-reading ones) and my favorite novel of my all-time favorite writer. He then dedicates the book to his two daughters, a gesture always likely to appeal to a Daddy’s girl like me.

McCall Smith’s version begins with the birth of Mr. Woodhouse during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as our narrator explains that the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy likely accounts for young Henry Woodhouse’s being an unusually “fretful child” (2). His mother proudly tells her friends that her son is a “valetudinarian” and derives “additional satisfaction” in sending them “to the dictionary,” a pleasure I admit I shared when I wrote my senior honors thesis entitled “Virtue and Valetudinarianism.” This Mr. Woodhouse, however, boldly defies his father’s expectations about being a “gentleman farmer” so he can pursue “engineering design” (4).

Though I never would have asked to be placed in Mr. Woodhouse’s head, it was a fascinating experience as McCall Smith has the new widower contemplate a governess for his now motherless girls. Though he does not dare to think he’d “make a very convincing Captain von Trapp,” he does think of the 26-year old woman and Maria in the same breath (11). Anne Taylor’s vegetarianism is of particular appeal to Mr. Woodhouse since it indicates a “sensible interest in nutrition” (10). Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor both drink chamomile tea, but what really wins him over is her “calm, self-reassured manner that inspired utter confidence” (16-17). Plus, she speaks French, “as any self-respecting governess surely should do” (16).

Young Emma, interestingly, directs her dolls as she does in the Romola Garai film adaptation. This little Emma tells one doll that she will never “find a husband unless” the doll does as Emma says (25). Later, there is a constant comparison of Harriet to a doll, even Mr. Knightley imagining Emma enjoying Harriet’s company because “Harriet [is] the next best thing to having a doll” (237). Emma is reminded by Harriet’s “pertness” of her childhood “cut-out dolls” (239). Emma also enjoys arranging things, or, in her father’s house, rearranging them. McCall Smith has her swap the position of two “pictures in (Mr. Woodhouse’s study,” which reminded me of the Gwyneth Paltrow film adaptation, 33). She does it, she says, “to make them happier,” so we can’t help but like her, just as we do her predecessor (34).

Miss Taylor becomes a stepmother of sorts to the girls, with none of the Cinderella or the physical relationship with their father issues. At 17, Isabella is ready to move to London to find some light work rather than to stay in school to take exams “that she would evidently not pass” (36). Mr. Woodhouse is of course concerned about the air quality. Still no sign of Mr. Knightley or even John Knightley, the younger brother we know Isabella must meet soon. Isabella does not seem concerned about the serious microbial risks her father frets about, but in the book, isn’t she at least nearly as valetudinarian as her father is?

Concerned that Isabella will “get herself involved in all sorts of affairs” otherwise, Mr. Woodhouse decides she should get married; to make sure “suitable people” know she’s available, he arranges to get her photograph into Country Life, which presents “a picture each week of an attractive young woman” (40-42). The photograph they submit of Isabella has “to be reasonably interesting,” and finally, Mr. Knightley, “just twenty-five” and the inheritor of both big house and attractive looks, enters the scene (43, 45). His brother, John, who inherited “such investments as his mother had” and thus may “indulge his taste for expensive cameras,” has bought a “flat in a fashionable part of London” (46). George, meanwhile, has introduced several innovations to farming his property and appreciates Emma’s “independent, insouciant manner,” even though to her, he is just “a vaguely avuncular figure” (48). McCall Smith treads lightly here—and well so—taking care not to have an adult man lusting after a teenage girl. We still don’t get even a glimpse of him.

Mr. Woodhouse is annoyed with John from the start of their interaction, when the former calls the latter to ask him to photograph Isabella, which suits well with the book. John is so clearly unlike his brother, both from the often silly perspective of the older man but also from ours. Our Mr. Knightley would never use an insouciant tone with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse contemplates “how quickly” a man could “transition . . . from the world of George Knightley, with his faultless taste, his life of understatement and simple decency, to this world of leather jackets,” long hair, and a tattoo (53). Even worse, after the photo shoot, John decides to take Isabella for a ride on his Ducati without even asking Mr. Woodhouse. I think it’s an interesting choice to leave his readers in Mr. Woodhouse’s point of view for so long. Those of us who know the book are likely to think of him as a lovable buffoon of sorts, but here, though his concerns seems exaggerated, we are more likely to incline our views with him than against him. Many, if not most, loving fathers would be concerned to send their 17-year old daughters on the back of a bike with an adult man on their first meeting. That said, it seemed to me an odd choice to have Mr. Woodhouse subscribe to and read Scientific American.

At the start of chapter 5, we shift perspectives, beginning with the moment of Emma’s sister’s wedding. (only one typo to distract me—here, of Wodehouse on p. 60. Wrong book.) There’s a cool line about Emma leaving school, driven away “one afternoon, zeugmatically, in floods of tears and the survey Mercedes” (64). This Emma, unlike the original, does travel a bit, such as on a “fortnight’s trip to Florence and Siena,” and later, summers in Paris or Edinburgh or Morzine, which causes her father a “great deal of anxious hand-wringing,” but at this point in the story, the narrative seems more influenced by Miss Taylor’s perspective if by any at all, so we don’t really know how Emma is affected by it (65). The governess well understands that there is often “no point talking to Isabella” about philosophical matters, but Emma, she sees, listens and contemplates her idea, or Plato’s, rather, about the chariot (aka the soul) being driven by two horses, one “all the brute appetites” and the other “the finer side” of human nature, which must not be allowed to be “pulled down by its companion” (66). Emma understands, gives Miss Taylor a generous token of her understanding, and returns home prepared to study decorative arts at the University of Bath. Miss Taylor, meanwhile, at Mr. Woodhouse’s insistence, will stay on as his secretary, so, in essence, doing nothing and drawing the same salary as always.

McCall Smith lets us get to know Emma a bit better as she becomes a young adult. During her university days, Emma refuses her father’s suggestion that Miss Taylor live in Bath with her, but she knows “the suggestion” comes not from distrust but from anxiety. She loves her father, and she accepts his constant worrying. She tells herself that “at least [her] father . . , is harmless” and tells her friends “that one’s parents are harmless” is all “one can hope for in life” (76). When she graduates, Emma proposes a dinner party with the idea of starting to match people up and assessing them from her new adult perspective. As she goes through the Highbury residents we know so well, we also hear Miss Taylor’s opinion of each person, but even more tellingly, we learn that Emma sometimes pictures Mr. Knightley while she is in bed, and smiles when that happens.

There’s a somewhat awkward conversation between Emma and Mr. Woodhouse over her feelings about Mr. Knightley, whether she likes him, what she calls him (George, she says 109), and the gap in their ages. They agree, however, that “he’s one of these people who doesn’t really have an age,” which is a clever way of heading off that potential source of discomfort among readers (110). I was then confused why she says she will have two “contemporaries” (Mr. Knightley and Harriet) at her dinner party. What about Mr. Elton? And Miss Taylor?

Meanwhile, McCall Smith handles Harriet quite differently from anything for which I was prepared. I was not expecting Emma to doubt her own sexuality when she meets Harriet. Emma finds “naivety attractive” (how, then, will she find Mr. Knightley attractive?) and hears all about Harriet’s work as an “extra in the role-playing they do” at Mrs. Goddard’s (115). When Harriet joins Emma for coffee, Emma really studies her in a way that seemed more than vaguely sexual, noticing her perfect “Cupid’s bow of a mouth” and her “China-doll build” (145).How is it that we still have not seen or heard Mr. Knightley? The anticipation is too much! When we finally do, it’s because Harriet comments that she would “love to put him on [her] mantelpiece,” which should introduce Emma to any jealousy long before it actually does here or in the original (and seems really forward for her first meeting with Emma) (119).

Mr. Woodhouse’s reaction to Miss Taylor’s engagement is funny and also sad. His first thoughts are of himself—“Miss Taylor was his secretary,” “what will happen to me?” and “was she seriously contemplating spending Christmas without them?” (123) Emma’s reaction is strange, too: she imagines Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston having sex, and the narrator’s comment is that “the absurd is always so tasty” (124). Why is that absurd? As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Woodhouse, too, contemplates Miss Taylor’s marital relations, concluding that she is “asexual” and that passion for James Weston “would be like sleeping with a farm animal” (139). Poor guy has made quite an impression in the Woodhouse house.

Frank’s backstory is interesting: he grew up mostly in Western Australia but had contact and even visits with his father until that point on a regular basis. When Mr. Churchill inherits a “wine estate in Margaret River,” Mr. Weston generously thinks about what is best for his son, imagining Frank will “have the time of his life out there” and will “become an Australian . . . which is a fate that [Mr. Weston] would gladly wish on anyone” (94, 96). What a nice man. McCall Smith also fleshes out Mr. Weston’s history, including three older brothers who own a distribution firm and an ex-girlfriend after his wife’s tragic death. He also has always felt guilt for “having abandoned . . . his infant son” (101).

McCall Smith makes some disturbing, and I thought illogical, choices with respect to Emma’s character. She’s rather tactless, even for her, telling Miss Taylor that Emma herself will not “need to [marry], of course” (128). Several days later, Emma says she saw “something just like [a dress of Miss Taylor’s] in the Casino and Textile Museum in London” (133). At least that time she recognizes her foot in her mouth. McCall Smith makes Emma’s desire to match people up stem from a desire to play the divine, which we have seen used as a motive before but which I don’t think Austen intends. Several times, the narrator discusses Emma imagining bringing people together is “rather as G-d might feel” (140). It also doesn’t make much sense that Emma assumes so much negative about men without any reason. Why does she tell Harriet that men are interested only in “S . . . E . . . X” and seem to believe they all have “designs” on girls like Harriet? (149) Emma may be overconfident in Austen’s novel, but this assumption seems to come from nowhere. She also “shiver[s]” when she thinks of sex (150). So now she has sexual dysfunction? Again, why? Moreover, the text states unambiguously that Emma does “not think one actually [has] to listen to a man” (153). Again, based on what in Austen or even in this story? Emma’s plans include Harriet using Elton to finance her gap year. Since when did Emma become a user of that sort? Or so materialistic? McCall Smith’s Emma is detestable, and I wanted so much to like her, both for her sake and for his.

Mr. Knightley’s story finally gets explored in chapter 11. The reason this catch is still a bachelor McCall Smith explains with a relationship of four years at the end of which the woman left him for the guy who installed their solar panels. She apologized rather than mislead him, but he has become “wary” and even “slightly distant” (160). He, though, is the source of info about Harriet’s parentage, which isn’t shameful at all (but does make him into a gossip of sorts). In this version, Mr. Knightley combats Emma’s laughter at Robert Martin working in a B and B by asking what “useful contribution” she makes to society, which, though he immediately regrets saying it, seems unnecessarily harsh for his character (170). Mr. Knightley is lonely and finds Emma a relief from that because they talk openly about whatever is of interest to him, and she “always raise[s] some interesting perspective” in addition to making “him want to laugh, with her dry humour and her mischievous remarks” (236-7).

Several other departures from the original occur, some interesting and some just wrong. Mrs. Goddard “puts something in” her cake (183). When Miss Bates has some of Mrs. Goddard’s cake, she looks “up at the sky in a somewhat dreamy manner” (296). Emma’s motive for sketching Harriet isn’t Mr. Elton at all but just that her new friend looks like a Botticelli woman (185). Now Emma wants to draw Harriet naked? What is going on here? If Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor want to teach Emma right from wrong, why do they feed her gossip? Now it is Mrs. Weston’s turn, as she tells Emma about the Yamaha delivered to Jane Fairfax and posits that the Campbell’s are “the sort of people who have never bought anybody a piano” (205). I thought it awkward that Jane, who is obviously talented, calls herself “hopeless” at piano when it turns out she studied music at Cambridge! (209) No wonder Emma gets jealous—except her first feeling when she learns about Jane’s “exotic” beauty is “aroused” curiosity (203). Does she feel drawn to Jane as well as to Harriet? Moreover, why does McCall Smith have Emma contemplate Jane Fairfax’s “boyish figure” after meeting her? (220) Perhaps it prepares us for Emma’s asking Harriet to disrobe for a nude portrait and telling her it was her own idea. At that point, Emma asks herself if her own behavior is sexually motivated. If it isn’t, is it just for control? Either way I found disturbing for someone we’re supposed to like. And what is the point in having Mrs. Firhill see Harriet?

There’s an awkward shift into post colonial guilt that both Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse seem to feel, particularly with respect to slavery. Mr. Woodhouse ponders cleansing his hands by apologizing to “the descendants of [their collective] victims,” which I found disturbing both because he wasn’t an oppressor and it seems wrong to paint him as such but also because an apology doesn’t suddenly make everything okay (238).

The Frank Churchill and Mr. Elton interactions are very different here as well. Because Harriet sees Frank first and funds him attractive, Emma deliberately leads her to think he is gay and therefore unavailable to them. Why? I want more loyalty to the original. Frank basically tells Emma he is gay but closeted and asks permission to flirt with her as a decoy. And when Elton finally tells Emma his intentions, we don’t feel nearly the shock or disturbance we do in the original. Harriet has only just started talking with him, not planning a future with him, and it happens in Emma’s own garden, from which he promptly leaves without any awkward carriage ride. It seems like a mistake but not a big deal. Emma considers making up a story about Elton, but the text says she does “not tell lies” (267). What about the one that Frank is gay? Then she, in essence, makes up Elton’s drinking problem and outrageously saws he looks like Joseph Goebbels (271). Why is this here? And why does she add a blatant lie that he “manhandled” Emma in the garden (272)? She also does not share the fact that Elton has seen the nude portrait of Harriet, which apparently Emma set without setting the painting on top of it. Mr. Elton, meanwhile, loses his license to drive after driving drunk from Emma’s rejection, ends up in a ditch, and goes to London, where he meets an untalented “Edith Piaf impersonator” who pursues him for the money she thinks he has (279). (That’s a twist from the original.)

The Box Hill incident doesn’t seem as terrible here either, though certainly unpleasant. I wasn’t sure what the precedent is for the tension between Frank and Emma over the bottle of wine. He doesn’t recognize his family’s own vintage (even saying it’s just “all right for a picnic”) and thinks she set him up to look like a fool (292). What event is this one supposed to parallel? Emma mutters that the company may have put some picnickers to sleep right after Miss Bates has been talking a lot, and the latter assumes she needs to work on not getting “carried away with a subject” (298). Since Mr. Knightley and Emma don’t seem as close and Frank is not even there, the tension of the scene is reduced. Later, however, when Mr. Knightley scolds her, we feel the tension, and the narrator is clear that this is a point that will change Emma “to an extent that is truly surprising” (305).

Some of McCall Smith’s updates really work in honoring the spirit of the original. I really like what McCall Smith does with Mr. Woodhouse, including his obsession with global warming, which seemed an appropriate modern version of our beloved Mr. Woodhouse’s concerns. He assesses the quality of each summer by “the incidence, throughout the world, of major weather disasters” (274). He also turns out to know Mrs. Goddard “reasonably well” (284). Nonetheless, Mr. Woodhouse is too wise in this version, even teaching Emma that “when someone does wrong . . . we must remember that that person is still a human being like the rest of us” and therefore “not rush to throw the first stone” (285). Another likeable update is that Emma directly apologizes for her remark at the picnic to Miss Bates. Emma also apologizes to Jane Fairfax, but that conversation is much more awkward because Jane doesn’t let Emma off the hook and is apparently quite upset about Emma’s flirting with Frank and then saying Frank is gay. When Emma hears that Harriet has been invited to Donwell Abbey and that Harriet plans to wear the new cashmere dress and suede boots Emma insisted on buying for her, suddenly she feels “this could not be allowed to happen” (334). The biggest shift is not what happens in the end but rather how it happens. Without spoiling it for you, I like it. Emma seems a little silly since, as she is trying to control Harriet’s situation, Harriet has already handled it—and Emma’s, too, but at least Emma is trying to be kind, which seemed to be true to Austen’s character. In the end, McCall Smith has Emma realize that happiness “is something that springs from the generous treatment of others,” a lesson we could all use to bring more happiness to the world (361).

Published in: on May 2, 2015 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series

Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

I wasn’t looking for Jane Austen when I started reading the second book in this delightful series about the people who live in an apartment building located on 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh. But isn’t that the beauty of Austen? She’s always around, whether we expect her or not.

These references appear first as one of our residents, a young woman named Pat who is, with difficulty, navigating the dating scene, visits the apartment of a man she met at a café. At this point in her visit, she is concerned that this man to whom she feels some attraction may not be interested in her romantically—may not, in fact, be interested romantically in women at all. So as he goes to make some coffee for the two of them, Pat assesses Peter’s apartment and finds “a pile of books—a Jane Austen novel, a book of critical essays, the Notebooks of Robert Lowell, a dictionary.” She also finds lecture notes for his upcoming Tuesday talk on “Social expectations and artistic freedom in Austen’s England.” At first, I was concerned that she might interpret any interest in Austen as a sign of his exclusively platonic interest in women, but no, McCall Smith is too smart for that. The sign that most worries Pat is not that she has found an intelligent, obviously wit-appreciating man but that there’s a photograph of Peter skinny-dipping, and she worries his friend is male.

To Pat’s credit, she mentally compares her gel-obsessed arrogant roommate Bruce’s reaction to Austen—he “once asked if Jane Austen was an actress”—to this nice Peter’s engagement with our writer, and she temporarily concludes that Peter is “far too handsome to be interested in girls.” This reader is hoping, for Pat’s sake as well as for my own, that this is an error in judgment.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith

I certainly never expected to like Olive, but when Bertie attends her seventh birthday party, she rejects her friend Pansy’s game request of “houses” in favor of playing “Jane Austen”! Olive lets herself be Lizzy, whom she describes as “a girl with lots of sisters.” Pansy plays Mrs. Bennet, “who is very stupid,” and Lakshmi plays Jane. Bertie, of course, is assigned the role of Mr. Darcy, and his instructions are to “just stand there and be handsome” (8). I just hope McCall Smith intended no ill will to lovers of Jane in making precocious but annoying Olive love her, too. Or at least some version of her. Maybe his point is that Olive misunderstands what matters in Austen?

McCall Smith naturally incorporates Austen into 44 Scotland Street at just the right moments (any moment of Jane is a right moment to me), and I was sorry to finish the last one (at least, for now). Fortunately for all of us, his modern take on Emma is available!

Published in: on April 1, 2015 at 6:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Pride and Princesses by Summer Day

 

The cover is pink, and the story has an alliterative title. I had found an actual book store with print books and had just run out of things to read. Whatever my excuse for purchasing the book, I beg you not to judge me too harshly for finishing it. Remember, dear reader, I do this, in large measure, for your sake.
I also like to see things through. Perhaps that is a fault.

My initial comments on the text took seven pages in 11 pt font in Word. Overwhelmed by my own analysis, I am including my comments on the language usage, spelling, and set-up with my analysis of the actual story. It’s just easier that way, since there are so many of the former.

The basic plot is this: our protagonist, Phoebe, and her best friend, Mouche, are high school students in Los Angeles. Phoebe is English and dreams of living in New York City. She and Moche are “like sisters,” one with dark hair (Lizzy) and one with dark (Jane) and also with “different but complimentary personalities” (10, 9). Spelling error included. Phoebe makes a point of mentioning early on “the amazing competition Mouche and [she] feel at times” (11). Their “daddies . . . turned gay for each other,” and then “had financial collapses” and left their families (11). Heart-rending, perhaps, but these girls are annoying. I know they’re young, but their conversations—“the kiss has to live up to your expectations or it’s never going to happen”—and imagination—“we’d both faint if anyone found out we’d taken pictures of boys we’d never even met”—seem more flighty than the teenage girls I know (13). Their big plan is to write a “dating manual for teenage girls, but they have little experience (14). It soon becomes the Boy-Rating Diary, which is offensive for obvious reasons (25).

Mark Knightly (Knightly: really? How can someone writing a novel about our characters not spell their names correctly?) arrives with Jet, so that could be Darcy and Bingley, especially because at least one has a sister who “could be a mini model” (7). Not sure what a mini model is, but okay. He could also be Mr. Knightley. Or Mark Darcy. Jet focuses “on the upside of any given situation,” while Mark comments “languidly” on the locals of Los Angeles (7). Sounds like Darcy and Bingley so far. Awkwardly, the narrator introduces Teegan as “one of the meanest Princesses in school” but then doesn’t explain that Princesses are “a clique of besties” until the next page (6-7).

The first actual mention of Austen comes in chapter 2. Our heroine says she thinks Mark is “hotter” than Jet “simply” because she has “been reading Austen and decided” she likes “dark haired men” (17). Really? That’s the lesson she learns from Austen? Later, Mouche says sometimes she thinks they “belong in a Jane Austen film or a Bronte novel” (38). There is so much wrong with that statement: 1) why an Austen movie but a Bronte book? 2) If the girls knew either Austen or Bronte, the girls wouldn’t place them in the same category. I didn’t know what to do but laugh when the Wickham character Phoebe has been tutoring gets suspended, and he promises her at least to “catch up on Wuthering Heights” in his time away from school (176). The fact that he thinks that choice would please her shows how little any of them understand about Austen.

In chapter 3, Phoebe reminds us there is “also a subtle but competitive bond” between her and Mouche; it’s hardly subtle if she reminds us every few pages (27). In fact, lack of subtlety is arguably the greatest weakness of this text (vying for a close second are ties between awkward use of language and inconsistency).

The girls’ friend Peter Williamson (not sure who he is supposed to be) is a dancer the Princesses torment as much as they’re able. Teegan uses slang from Clueless—as if –in response to his hope that he might have a chance with the hot new guys (19). Teegan is also really offensive, boasting that Mark Knightly “totally wanted” her as soon as he saw her, and she “can’t rape the willing” (21). The vulgarity continues when supposedly one of their teachers, Miss Tartt (really? Is there any subtlety left?), is “obviously taken” with Mark, flutter[ing] her eye-lashes” and “appreciating his masculine energy” (29). I don’t know any teacher who does this. The rumors about Mark include that he “wants to major in pre-med at Yale or Harvard,” that “his uncle owns a huge castle in Scotland,” and that “his family harbors a very dark secret” (33). Peter overhears Mark talking with jet about his little sister Petra, who “stopped eating and became so introverted” after their parents died (34).

There are two younger cousins, Ella and Katie (Lydia and Kitty?) who have gone on a double date with Alex Miller and Tom Allen (37). Both girls are “super-giggly and boy-crazy,” but the boys spread lies about what sexual behavior the girls engaged in, and the “students in general believed the boy’s version of the story” (37-8). Apparently apostrophe usage is not making much headway in this school. The motives behind the Boy-Rating Diaries appear for a moment more admirable than I had thought: the big cousins want to teach people “a lesson in social etiquette” after their little cousins are maligned this way (38). At the same time, though, the girls spend their time “practis[ing] hairstyles and make-up” including on Mouche’s younger sister Wednesday, while she is asleep (53). Phoebe at least acknowledges that she may sound “shallow” by focusing so much on her outside, but she still does it (53).

In fact, there are many flaws in logic, both in terms of novel structure and character choices. Mouche’s brother Trey is not mentioned until page 42, and then it’s because he is “shout[ing]” at the girls so they don’t wake Wednesday (43). At least the Wickham character appears at an appropriate time; Joel Goodman shows up in chapter 5, “The Love Drug.” Phoebe tells us he is known as the “virgin-converter” and, according to gossip, is “a very bad person” (52). He’s smoking, and he appears just as Phoebe gets her feelings hurt, offering her services with “a vitriolic intonation” (aimed at Mark and Jet?) (148). His claim here is that Mark’s father fired Joel’s mother, which resulted in Joel’s family living in their “car for a few weeks” (150). Joel Goodman is apparently Croatian, which is as random as it sounds.

Anyone who has read Harriet the Spy can predict that this top-secret “boy-rating diary’ is going to be a fiasco (51). The idea of involving “other people” in their “game” should set off warning bells to Phoebe and Mouche, but it doesn’t (51). The bells should have rung deafeningly when they draw a pink line through Jet’s name and replace it with Mark’s, scrawling “wildly rich—major possibilities” (61). The girls are planning to have independent careers, so this foolish choice seemed inconsistent with their philosophy, and again, over-handed foreshadowing. Their Diary now has a list of every boy at the school with a quick summary of his potential. At least one of them has the sense to worry that “it could fall into the wrong hands” (87).

The links to Austen are sometimes strong, sometimes tenuous, and sometimes non-existent. That inconsistency is bothersome. Is it a nod to Elizabeth that Phoebe tells Mouche they should “rely on common sense and instinct” rather than on “the old games of cards and tea leaves” (which they use to foretell they will fall in love this year)? (55) In the middle of a discussion of pre-teen antics, the narration briefly and awkwardly tries to deliver a deep message: “As girls, we weren’t really taught to support each other” (72). Then, mid-way through, we learn randomly that they’re matchmakers? Now is time for Emma? Or Clueless, more like, since the girls take credit for fixing up their teachers, Mr. Frames and Miss Love. The girls obviously draw on movies more than books, as does our writer. Phoebe says she has “just finished skimming Emma”—skimming?! (75) But at least she read it; Mouche admits she “preferred the movie version” (75). There’s a nice little parallel to the embarrassing ball in P and P in which our narrator feels humiliated by a series of circumstances that lead to Mark glaring at her as if she is “pure trailer trash” (141). Mark even tells pushy Teegan (Caroline?) that he doesn’t “really dance” (143). Mark then says what we know he must: “To be honest, I just don’t find her friend that attractive” (145). The Darcy letter comes much earlier relative to the initial insult but is in no way linked to a failed proposal .

I do give the girls credit for never deliberately acting stupid to win the boys’ attention. When, for instance, Mouche announces that “men hate over-achievers,” Phoebe says they will “just have to re-educate the boys on that one” (57). Good girl.

Their understanding of adults, however, is flawed. One teacher, for instance, supposedly doesn’t like Phoebe because the teenager is “competition” (62). Again, what kind of teacher is this, or how warped is this girl’s understanding of how adults think? Their perception of age is also strange. Mark and Jet are one year older, but Phoebe thinks “from a distance they looked like teachers” (65). When I was 25 and in my own classroom, I still didn’t look like the teacher (which amused my students every time someone new came into the room and asked one of them where the teacher was).

Their sense of their purpose is flawed. At least Phoebe acknowledges that Mouche is “just as inexperienced as me at proper dating” (even if she meant as I), but then why does she think either of them should be writing “advice for older women”? (63, 62). Is the writer being deliberately inconsistent to illustrate character? The girls know that the guides they are reading are filled with at best “old-fashioned” and at worse terrible advice and that Mouche’s mom collects them “as a joke (64). It isn’t hard to predict that whoever finds them on the girls will not be in on the joke. How can they be so stupid? How can the writer NOT have that happen?

The text’s content and structure are often simply awkward. The text shifts awkwardly to third person for just a few paragraphs when Mark arrives at the beach for the double date—”He really did want to get to know Phoebe and Mouche better”—and then jumps right back to Phoebe’s point of view—”he noticed a girl who looked a lot like me” (109-110). The end of chapter 9 has the boys drive “off without even bothering to come inside,” but chapter 10 opens with the boys saying “a brisk ‘see ya’ to Mouche” and Phoebe (113-14). There is also misleading phrasing, such as when Phoebe says maybe Ethan praised “Mouche’s designs for the play” because Phoebe “caught him trying to kiss Mouche behind the stage curtains” when of course she means he says nice things because he likes Mouche, not because he got caught (159). Also, what happens after Mark discovers the diary? No follow-up, and he doesn’t seem upset. He obviously didn’t see it, but why is that scene even there? Several choices just don’t make sense. Mouche tells her drama teacher she is going to NYU or Yale (confident girl!), and he worries she might “waste” her talent there? (155) And why, when first Mark asks Phoebe to go to Paris, he says, “with me and my sister and Jet,” is then Petra not on the trip? (283, 295)
Besides inconsistent, this book is over the top annoyingly “moral.” The girls say “gross” about “actually doing it” with boys just as they drive “past a religious group protesting” with signs that read “Do you want to be a garden for Jesus or a vessel for sin?” (134-35) Really, whether you believe in the divinity of Jesus or not, he does not belong in a book of this nature. Similarly, our narrator realizes that she may “actually have feelings” for Trey, in addition to Mark and maybe Joel, and thus she is “becoming a hussy in [her] own mind” (136). How does that make her a hussy? What lesson is this supposed to teach young girls, who must be the target audience of a book like this? It’s later awkward and weird that, when Mark mouths the words to the play during a rehearsal, Phoebe sees him as “humble in this new light” but then Brooke comments “almost like Jesus when he was a carpenter” (227). What? Or is Brooke supposed to be reacting to Peter’s comment about a bad dress rehearsal meaning a great show? Is that less awkward? For girls with that annoying sense of morality, they have an odd reaction to Wednesday’s perceptions; I don’t think it’s funny when a small child comments that her older sister and sister’s boyfriend are “busy macking all over each other” (294).

Nor does the plan to team up with the princesses only to manipulate them seem moral. When the plan is finally revealed, it’s really bad: our girls are “sharing” the rules with the Princesses, but the rules are distorted, such as “Pre-men expect a casual hook-up. So why should we care? Act like a guy and care as little as they do” (187). This is mean. Our girls also become greedy, planning to “halve the gifts” the dates yield without telling the other girls the plan (192). Now they have a series of quasi-dates planned. Phoebe ends up on a date with Ethan, a “distant cousin” of Mark’s, who of course is Colonel Fitzwilliam, and who reveals the truth that Mark “convinced Jet to stay away from a particular girl who Jet was kind of into,” i.e. Mouche (197-98). Phoebe is smart enough not to “write about what happened at the movies in the shared Boy-Rating Guide” but not smart enough to realize how risky it is to write in “the original, hidden one” before she has a chance to explain to Mouche? (200) I was annoyed that Phoebe hardly gives Mark a chance to explain his behavior or to explain his behavior, but that, at least, is in keeping with how Elizabeth treats Darcy during his proposal (204). Phoebe foolishly describes Mark in the Boy Rating Diary as “a hyper-intense bore” whom “his poor sister” has “to put up with,” and any reader knows a Bridget Jones’ Diary situation is on its way (205). When finally the princesses are planning to publish the “first impressions” Phoebe recorded of Mark, now she feels “horror” (273). (How did she think this would turn out?) After the princesses publish the diary knowing Phoebe and Mouche tried to stop them, they all have a pillow fight. That’s it? What about trying to take it down?

Phoebe should spend a little less time on fake dates and a little more with a grammar book, or just any book: “it seems the streets aren’t safe from either Knightley’s” (troubling both because either requires a singular noun and because the plural of a name does not require an apostrophe. My mom’s third graders know this.). Brooke needs some help, too, which means this isn’t a character problem but a writer and editor problem, as shown by her entry that Tom’s mother wants him to marry “a descendant of the Vanderbilt’s” (211). More apostrophe trouble: “the woman works hard for Mr. Spark’s” (230). His name is Sparks; no possession intended here. Mark’s letter in which he apologizes for separating Jet and Mouche, at least, uses possessives correctly. Pronoun usage is incorrect: “I think me and Mouche . . . will adopt Petra as our next” best friend (272). Their spelling needs work, too, as in this comment: “it was like the fact that I had ignored him peaked his interest” (164). Why is Phoebe spelling favorite with a u? (251) She also uses “amongst.” Annoying quasi-Britishisms just seem pretentious. “Learnt” (231). Even its and it’s takes a hit: “really, its Ella’s responsibility to call her mom” (282)

About 200 pages in, I considered that maybe this story is supposed to be more Emma than P and P, thus Mouche’s distractingly handsome and good older brother, who Phoebe assumes is “out of [her] league” even more so than Mark (219). The scene with the driving reminded me of Clueless, and then I realized that actually several of the scenes in the novel remind me of movie scenes. Do you hear the Clueless girls saying something like this? “It was way harsh for him to have to live with such stuck up bores” (251). Mouche and Phoebe are bridesmaids at their teachers’ wedding—just like Cher and Dionne. They’re even wearing pink–just like in the movie. All of the annoying girls end up with boys they like (Teegan with Jack, Tory with Tom, Brooke with Peter, and Freya with Josh)—way too tidy an ending. Even Mouche’s toddler sister Wednesday sits under a table with a page boy, “Miss Tartt’s nephew, Timmy” (271). Phoebe is still matching up other people—now Petra with a “sophomore called Josh” (272). I was annoyed most because the implication is that the high school experience will be incomplete if she doesn’t secure a man right away. What kind of lesson is that? And why, when Phoebe actually likes Mark, does she still think of him as “just the pawn” in her “game of chess”? (254) Unless she is completely clueless—ah, and there it is. More scenes from Clueless: Phoebe imagines Mark’s aunt imagining Phoebe as “the next Mrs. Knightly”—and then (I can hear the “as IF!”) “Hello, I’m barely sixteen!” (277) Really surprised that she didn’t accidentally call Mark Josh, but maybe Mark is from Bridget Jones’ Darcy since the real Mr. Knightley character should be Mouche’s older brother.

But then, back to P and P we go, and it is a bumpy ride. When Phoebe is mesmerized by Petra’s piano-playing, she sees Mark watching her “listen to the music” and realizes that Mark has only “seemed too proud” but actually isn’t (224). This would still be at Netherfield since Jet, the Bingley character, is officially hosting, but it seemed like a Pemberley scene. Tory ditches her date, supposedly because “it’s not every Saturday that Petra joins us” but really to be closer to Mark (234). That’s the closest this text gets to a clear Caroline Bingley. But she’s worse than Caroline, mocking Petra behind her back for having suffered from bulimia. Caroline could be all of the Princesses. Teegan actually places a rock under Mouche’s saddle so the horse is disturbed, and then Teegan leaves when she realizes Mark knows (238). Another Caroline moment occurs when Freya offers to get the nurse for Phoebe’s ankle—and Phoebe hates when “girls pretend to be nice in front of boys they are trying to impress” (261). When Phoebe and Mouche finally go to the equivalent of Pemberley, the two girls are still thinking “this would be a great story for the Boy Rating Diary “—why, when they both like these boys, are they still thinking this way? (238) Then the narrator comments that Petra is skinny but doesn’t look “totally anorexic,” not distinguishing between bulimia and anorexia (243). Lady Catherine shows up in the form of Mark’s aunt, who pushily demands to know what the girls’ “fathers did for a living, what kind of car they drove and if [they] summered in the Hamptons” (245). Interestingly, there’s a husband, who I suspect may be a version of Mr. Collins. He gives the girls “an extra long glance from head to toe” (246). Anne Debourgh only appears late in the tale, after Darcy and Elizabeth get together, in the form of Kayleen, “the skinny, miserable looking daughter” of the Lady Catherine character’s business partner (277). (Forgive the absence of hyphens; this text is sorely lacking them.)

Even the Romeo and Juliet adaptation gets messed up. Why does this play have Rocci stab himself? Everyone knows he takes poison; Juliet uses the knife. Later, Phoebe claims the teacher “copied the exact text” when Juliet’s mom runs in on poisoned Juliet, crying “a jealous hood! A jealous hood!” (258-59). Uh, no. She never walks in on poisoned Juliet, and the “jealous hood” line belongs to Juliet’s father. Who does she think her readers are?!

When the narrator reveals who the intended addressee is, it is doubly horrifying: 1) The terrible twist at the end is completely unnecessary and enhances the story in no way. 2) This means the story was told from an adult perspective all along, so there is no forgiveness for sounding like a really dumb teen.

There is, at least, a valuable lesson in here about how much girls miss when they are “unsupportive of each other” (231). Oh, and don’t leave your diary in public places.

Published in: on March 1, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Killing Jane Austen (A Honey Driver Mystery) by Jean G Goodhind

Note: I have not cited page numbers because in this on-line text, there are only pages within chapters.

As often happens, even when certain authorial decisions annoyed me in this text, I kept reading. When Goodhind abandons subtlety, saying, for instance, that Steve Doherty is a detective inspector with “laconic good looks and sexual promise,” I bristled at the lack of delicacy, but I also wanted to know what was going to happen with him and our protagonist. Honey Driver is a Bath hotelier who “double[s] as Crime Liaison Officer on behalf of the Hotels Association.” Honey, her mother Gloria, and her daughter Lindsey are slated to be film extras on “yet another historical production . . . being filmed in Bath.” In a cute moment, Gloria tells Honey to take an afternoon nap, adding that “Audrey Hepburn used to take an afternoon nap every day” and “that’s what kept her eyes so bright.” Mary Jane, a “resident professor of the paranormal” (what?), says no, and thinks Sir Cedric, who died “back in 1792,” comes to visit her occasionally. She graduated from what this writer says, is a “college catering in that one subject, which was located in California—where else?” Bristling, I continued to read.

I continued reading even when it became clear that Honey is no fan of Jane Austen. Why would anyone who loves JA call her “the most famous spinster ever to write romantic fiction”? Even if she doesn’t love JA, I couldn’t quite figure out why Honey calls her “a professional busybody.” Honey doesn’t really seem familiar with Austen’s work. Very few people here seem to be. Though Goodhind says so, I think it unlikely that a person who reads “a lot of Jane Austen” as Miss Cleveley does, would claim that Austen’s “pen created the greatest romantic novels ever written,” since the belief among us is that the novels transcend romance and deal profoundly and wittily with all human relationships.

I continued reading when the language’s awkwardness irritated me, too. After a quick elevator ride, “Up they went. Smooth, real smooth.” Unlike the language here. Bodyguards are called “two sides of beef in tuxedos.” A man goes “off on a thought marathon.” The similes are awkward, too, such as here: “a blue silk skirt, a slim sheath of a thing that rasped against her legs like surf against shingle.” In a case of faulty parallelism, a cafe “had the right ambience, the right food, and was situated in a cobbled courtyard not far from Bath Abbey.” When Steve comments that “stuffing is a task close” to his heart, Honey may not “respond to the sexual innuendo,” but our narrator sure does: “it just wasn’t in her this morning.” This is not clever language a la Austen. Martyna Manderley, playing JA in this film, is rumored to be “a right bitch” (which certainly seems accurate when she accuses Honey, who just made a call to work, of “taking a photograph for some shitty little tabloid, you sneaky bitch”). Martyna is engaged to Brett Coleridge, and with him she changes from “snapping turtle” (that seemed to me unfair to turtles: do they snap?) to “purring pussy cat.” She wants him because he is rich and “sexually adventurous.” (She’s also, by the way, disrespectful to Austen, saying her “legs were superglued together”). But don’t feel too sorry for him: when we first see him, he’s “in bed, sandwiched between a blonde and a brunette.”

There are a lot of characters to dislike in this novel, and Goodhind successfully casts all of them in suspicious lights when the murders begin. We get in the head of the director, Boris Morris, who is unhappy with his position but knows that lecturing at UCLA would mean “he’d never get to direct such a plum project and a big star ever again.” Gloria is busy flirting with “an elderly gentleman wearing a frock coat and a pale green topper” while Honey encounters a “scruffy man” she soon recognizes as Casper St John Gervais, Chairman of Bath Hotels Association. To escape the cold, she enters a “brightly lit house” where a production meeting is about to begin, that is, until a young woman with eyes “glazed with horror” announces that Martyna has been stabbed and is dead. Honey is an immediate suspect both because of her unpleasant interaction with the mean actress earlier and because she is holding the script with sticky fingerprints. She doesn’t seem too concerned, though, perhaps because she knows Doherty, aforementioned man of “sexual promise,” will be handling the case. She tells him that the victim was “paranoid and greedy,” that it is no surprise “someone bumped her off,” but that all Honey did “was pick up a bloodstained manuscript.” As a result of this relationship, the woman once held as the primary suspect is, within minutes, snooping around the dead movie star’s trailer, doing “a few poses in front of the mirror.” Honey is disrespectful, too, suggesting Martyna was killed because people “were sick to the back teeth with Jane Austen” in which case she “sympathize[s].” Her snooping leads her to realize that, because of the position, the man in the catering truck may have seen something worth investigating. Dick Richards (really?) seems more concerned with celebrity praise (of his flapjacks and Thai curry beefburgers) than with celebrity death, but maybe Honey is on to something nonetheless. She learns that Penelope Petrie (I kept reading, despite these ridiculous names) “jumped at the chance” to replace the leading lady, which appalls even Honey. Honey’s motive, though, for getting the scoop, rather appalled me: she just wants to “beat Steve Doherty to an arrest.” Even our protagonist, I had a little trouble liking.

She’s still better than Martyna, however. In fact, solving this crime is tricky because it seems no one liked the victim, and many people had reason to get rid of her. The boyfriend looks guilty to Honey until Steve explains that the guilt is from cheating, not from killing. The narrator tells us that Borris Morris looks “decidedly shifty.” That either leaves no room for judgment for us or misleads us with faulty Honey assessment. The same happens with Penelope. Is her voice actually “an itsy bit contrived,” or is Honey assessing—possibly correctly, but possibly not—based on her own preconceptions? Penelope, we soon learn, has slept her way to this part and feels no sadness over the “right cow” who “got her just deserts.” Miss Cleveley reappears, supposedly seeking her niece, Perdita (of course she’s lost, with a name like that; how Shakespearean) Moody (is that name, too, a reflection of character?). She has been seen carrying a hatpin—the one she said shouldn’t be in a JA movie? The one that killed Martyna? A new character, Hans Hoffner, seems disturbing, with eyes “a chill blue like icy water reflected in the sky.” He scares Coleridge, which isn’t a good sign, and Coleridge desperately wants to keep “Hoffner on board” as the “main backer for the Jane Austen film.” Another new character appears shortly thereafter: Candy, who gets “hired to trap the rich and famous” (and who, incidentally, eats a lot of candy the first time we meet her, which I found annoying, rather than clever).

There are many moments in the text that don’t immediately make sense. A hotel owner, for instance, signs a petition to get rid of films in Bath when clearly films fuel tourism. The petition lady comments on the high “quality of the food they served on the film set” when the food is terrible. She’s a historical expert and comments on the irony that the star died from a stab by a hatpin that would have been an anachronism if used in the film. She later calls Mr. Brett and threatens him with revenge without even telling him who she is. Brett and his friends are all dressed up as women, and the call leads to Brett lashing out at his buddy Nigel. Why? Why do a mother and daughter share a corset they both use to lure men to their beds? If Borris is the murderer, why would he risk getting so drunk in a public place where he might accidentally reveal too much? And the catering situation is bizarre—and thus potentially suspicious as well. The guy claiming to be Dick is actually Ted, then Dick shows up, and then Ted returns, saying he made Dick an offer, which Dick quickly accepted since Ted is “more original” and “getting all the praise” (for his disgusting combinations of food items). Are you following all this? In terms of research, our team is a little lacking. Honey thinks the name of the film company is Banana Productions based on a tip from “Boring Bernard” and does no research—even a quick google search—on it. Then Doherty offends the director and says nothing to calm his nerves before sending him driving off.

Honey decides she wants to solve the murder and find Perdita. To do so, she has some bizarre encounters, such as one in which she advises a prostitute how to look like a “business woman of discreet and particular taste” in exchange for possible assistance finding the lost girl. Perdita is not quite what we, or Honey, expect but does provide some interesting information about the relationship between Martyna and her fiancé. Perdita’s aunt is slightly less shocking in her admission of her relationship with her sister’s husband and her suggestion of Martyna’s real passion. Apparently Martyna was at least close to her “senior make-up technician.”

The plot thickens when John Rees, a good-looking, “bookish” American, calls to spend time with Honey. John Rees seems sweet enough, sharing his breakfast with Honey and then asking her if they can plan to “trade food again at lunchtime,” but then he isn’t as reliable as we or Honey would like, flaking on plans for coffee and vaguely promising to “catch up with” her again. So he’s suspicious—he shows up just in time for murder #2 and then disappears. That plot thread is completely dropped, however. Fast on his heels, Miss Cleveley turns out to be surprisingly “firmly muscled,” which suggests she, too, could have done the dread deed.

The story jumps around a lot, even mid-chapter, but I continued to read because I was curious how this would all get sorted out. We jump from Honey’s date to Nigel’s beating to Honey’s discussion with an actuary about the insurance Banana Productions Ltd has for its stars and extras. When a trailer crashes to the ground, Honey is even more convinced there is foul play still at work. The first actual scene of violence is disturbing. This Mr. North person is a mystery to us, but he’s angry and wants results. He does not react well to not getting them. The question, still, is what this has to do with Martyna’s murder. How does Ted know the pillows inside Martyna’s trailer are “lace-trimmed”? Later, when the Dutch tourists compliment the “pretty lace trim around the pillowcases” at the Green River Hotel, I knew something was up, but it was never clear what the link was. Also not entirely clear (I got it down to two choices, but the language is ambiguous) is who is Mr. North, and he isn’t the only character to have two different names. Catching the murderer ends up being quite a theatrical, actually amusing scene, with some fear tossed in. The reasons for the murder are ridiculous, but the other characters don’t seem to find them so. Confusing loose ends would be annoying at the end of any mystery, but truly baffling to me was how Steve—or any person—can have navy eyes. Maybe that gets explained in another Honey Driver story.

Published in: on February 1, 2015 at 9:59 pm  Comments (2)  

The Dating Mr. Darcy Trilogy by Katie Oliver

Part 1: Prada and Prejudice: not to be confused by the same-named book by Mandy Hubbard

I will confess upfront that I did not complete the trilogy. Though I enjoyed what I read, there were so many discrepancies and illogical choices made by the heroines, heroes, and author alike that when my e-book got returned to the library of its own accord, I did not pursue a renewal. That said, there is much here to enjoy, and for readers just looking to do that and content to wait for the happy ending, these may be just right.

Heroine Natalie Dashwood (so is this S and S or P and P or both?) is 23ish and working in her grandfather’s store so he doesn’t “cut off her quarterly allowance.” Meanwhile, she has a boyfriend whose claims that he “had a few pints with the boys, got pissed, [and] passed out” she understands as meaning he “spent the night in bed” with another woman. Her grandfather announces he has hired a new Operations Manager he wants her to meet. An impatient well-dressed stranger makes demands on her time at work, selecting lingerie for a conservative woman, and she treats him rudely, though he is a paying customer. That night, Natalie plans to dump Dom, only to be beaten to the punch in a humiliating way, made worse by her own drunkenness and correspondingly bad aim when she hurls her drink at him. The man who gets soaked kindly offers her a ride home (Natalie does not recognize him), only to be challenged by Ian Clarkson, married to her best friend but clearly eager to cheat on Alexa with Natalie. The first gentleman prevails, and his scent of “soap and leather” make enough an impression that Natalie tells him she “really, really want[s] to have sex with” him. (Who says that? More to the point, what Austen-based heroine says that?) He kindly says he’d like “nothing better” but declines on account of her being drunk, their being strangers, and her desire for revenge against her ex.

You can guess whom she sees again at the Monday morning board meeting.

Rhys Gordon has been brought in to save Natalie’s family store, which she calls her “birthright” but which is in serious trouble unless some major changes are made. After an uncomfortable meeting, he insist on taking Natalie to lunch to help fight her hangover and to discuss her recent “behavior, . . . spending habits, [and] . . . relationships,” none of which reflect well on her.

That doesn’t go well. He ends up insulting her with his suggestions that she is spoiled and selfish (“some of us actually DO have to work for a living”), and she just curses and snaps at him before storming off. Is this the Elizabeth Darcy “not handsome enough” scene? But it’s too early for the failed proposal. I was really unsure how this was working as a Mr. Darcy variation, other than arrogance and misunderstanding, but I kept trying. They quickly make up, and then another problem arises, this one more clearly the Darcy (“attractive? . . . but she’s not my type”) way. She also overhears him speculate that she’d be a “hellcat in bed,” which embarrasses her. So she flees again, rather than confront him with her suspicions that he is using her to get publicity for the store, which it sure looks like to us, too, but we at least still hope is not true.

At this point, our heroine seems like a spoiled brat until we learn that her “father’s suicide gutted” her, and then at least can cut her a little slack. The hero is better, at least responsible and employed in a real way. His family story is also compelling: The dad beat the mom regularly and once tried to beat Rhys, who “knocked him down and pummeled him” until his mother and a neighbor dragged him off.

I realized several chapters in that there’s another sub-plot I wasn’t really following. It involves Alastair, who serves on the board, his often-abandoned wife Cherie, and their teenage daughter Hannah, who apparently offered herself to her boyfriend Duncan but was rebuffed. It seems quite possible that Alastair is having an affair (even flaking on the date he set up with his wife to compensate for all the times he isn’t home for dinner), but later we see him worrying about “more hours lost to number crunching” and “another round of apologies to Cherie.” Meanwhile, Cherie seems more contemplative than she should be about her own relationship with Duncan’s father, Neil, but I am having trouble connecting this sub-plot to the rest of the story, let alone to either Austen novel. Hannah, who now is apparently “hanging out’ with Jago Sullivan, currently a stock boy but studying cooking at night, is frustrated by her dad, who is so against the boy, first getting him fired and then practically chasing him away when he and Hannah are just talking after their date. No clear reasons are given to explain Alastair’s feelings, but then of course he turns out to be right.

Back to the part of the story I was following: Rhys is pretty determined. When Natalie disappears and then hangs up on him when he calls to check on her, he finds out she’s at her mom’s and follows her there, demanding to know what is wrong. Usually, we’d want to discourage this kind of behavior in men, but here it actually works because Natalie does tell him, and his explanation for what she actually overheard is credible.

The story doesn’t completely make sense in several places. For instance, Rhys says he called her cell to make sure she got home safely, but she’s still driving home at that point. Is it supposed to be because she runs out of petrol? Maybe, but that seems a bit too coincidental. Dominic, now clearly a drunken rock star in need of money and willing to do anything to get it, says no initially to an opportunity to be the face of a new fragrance? That makes no sense. Are we to read him as drunk? Stupid? Why did Natalie ever like him? Why does Keeley? Later the text shares Natalie’s thoughts about how “different” Dom was when they were first together in Warwickshire, but it’s hard to imagine this guy not being a complete waste of space. On the day of his wedding, Keeley catches him “mid-bonk with one of her bridesmaids.” If his plan is to marry Keeley for her money, why would he take a risk of that kind? (Later, Natalie says as much to him, and his pathetic defense is “I was drunk, Nat! I only wanted a quick shag before I got myself shackled for life to Keeley.”) Clearly, though, even this is not “the biggest, juiciest scandal to hit the UK since . . . Well, since ever.” Has our writer forgotten the tampon episode? And that’s just the first incident that came to mind when I read this ridiculous comment. Another illogical choice: if Natalie is fantasizing about Rhys kissing her, why does she order garlic broccoli?

Also nonsensical is how Natalie has still not learned to spend less money. Even her friend Tark says carefully that “perhaps” she “should be a bit more—erm, frugal.” Who is she supposed to be? No Jane Austen heroine acts this way. Then she “completely” forgets her meeting with Rhys, not obviously remembering how serious the financial problems are or how worried he gets when she flakes. I had trouble sympathizing with her. Natalie’s older sister makes her appearance in the form of one Caroline Dashwood (is the mixing of names deliberate? It feels confusing.) Everyone seems to know Natalie needs to stop spending money—except Natalie, who offers to buy her sister’s wedding gown, though her sister correctly tells her Natalie “can’t afford a knock-off from Marks and Sparks right now, much less a designer gown.” Natalie’s instincts are good in terms of making sure her beloved sister gets “the wedding of her dreams,” but she is so irresponsible she is annoying.

When Rhys talks with her again—actually interrupting yet another day of shopping—he seems finally to get through to her how serious the situation is and how critical she could be to saving her family’s store. Natalie and Rhys take their relationship a step deeper when they go furniture shopping for his new flat. She, like Elizabeth at Pemberley, is impressed by how “gorgeous” it is, and he likes “the way she widen[s] her eyes whenever she [is] surprised or indignant” and well as “the challenge she present[s]” him. Natalie didn’t grow up in luxurious circumstances even though her father owned the store, and certainly not happy after her father killed himself and left her mother to find him. Because the stores were doing well, he was able to make repairs to their house but didn’t get Natalie the horse she wanted, for which reason she “told him [she] wished he were dead.” The next day, he was. (How could he do that to her? She was just a child!)

Ian is pretty awful as the villain. Not only did his stepfather blackmail Natalie’s father, which sent the company “into the red” and led to his suicide, but also now Ian plans to go to the tabloids so her “father’s name will be smeared like shit all over the media” (his coarse language suits his character) unless Natalie marries him (after he divorces his pregnant wife, her best friend) and recommends him “for a partnership in Dashwood and James.” Later, when Rhys directly asks her what’s going on, and she should tell him, she still lies and says “nothing.” Why? When she finally does tell someone, it isn’t anyone we would think, but that person gives the same advice we would: tell the police. Tell Rhys.

Dominic is not who we think he is, and knowing what he’s trying to cover actually did draw me to his side for a moment. He, too, is getting blackmailed. And we certainly understand better why Natalie fell for him. And why Gemma is now. He still causes a lot of unnecessary problems, though.

There are a lot of coincidental sightings in bars and bookstores and such for a big city like London, but maybe with fewer jumps in logic, I could overlook those. A sampling: Sophie at her own wedding is hanging out with Natalie, whom she is meeting for the first time. She shares what happened between Cat and Rhys, and Natalie is disgusted by Rhys, and then a few minutes later she is kissing him on the dance floor. And what happened to his resolve about not pursuing Sir R’s granddaughter? When the police sting is set up, why are they giving the instructions to Rhys rather than to Natalie? If Cherie knows there is press everywhere and thinks her daughter is home sick, why would she set up a clandestine meeting at her home? If Alastair figures out why Rhys looks so familiar, why is he so shocked when Rhys tells him their connection? Gemma’s character is inconsistent. One moment she dumps Dom by hurling hot bacon at him, and the next she’s calling Keeley a “tarted-up cow” for showing up to sing with him and save the store. Then, to save the day, Natalie blackmails Dom? That is the lesson she has learned from all this? Why, if Rhys knows everything else and if the police know exactly what room she is in, does Natalie risk bringing her smart phone in the lining of her clutch, knowing “if Ian found the phone,” he might do something awful? But once she turns “off all sounds on the mobile,” how does she hear it ring when Poppy calls, back from Sri Lanka? After everything they have been through, how could Natalie not know if she and Rhys are “an item”? The incredible night aside, she runs crying into his arms when she has a breakdown, he accompanies her to tell her grandfather the truth, he’s always looking out for her well-being. Is she suddenly so without confidence? Why?

But then, in an exciting twist, after the glorious fashion show (why isn’t Sir Richard there?), Ian manages to trick Natalie. Rhys and the police learn quickly about her phone idea (“sat nav”), so we have to hope that works in time. She, at last, has learned some lessons: drink more slowly (or not at all), have faith in the good people, know how to handle the bad ones (annoying detail: the special pouch Phillip made to conceal her phone sure lets its captive out a lot).

Despite the story’s gross errors in logic, by the end, I really wanted these people to get their happily ever afters, which, I suppose means I really enjoyed the story. Thus, I began the next.

Part 2: Love and Liability

This story follows Holly, Alastair’s older daughter, in her career and romantic life.

The prologue has a hungry girl escaping what sounds like a crazy ex-boyfriend. Again, satellite navigation emerges as a big deal; she has mistakenly taken his phone, which means he can find her. (So why doesn’t she just ditch the phone? But of course she doesn’t.)

Holly works for BritTEEN magazine under a “nightmare” editor, Sasha, whom Holly thinks of as a “predator.” Sasha, while mocking Holly, assigns her “to interview Henry Barrington,” a “well-regarded financial solicitor” who “might stand for MP during the next election.” Holy first got this job because she did a proper interview with Dominic, which she got because of Natalie, so at least these stories are clearly connected, even though the link to Austen is still not.

I wasn’t super impressed by Holly. Why does Holly not immediately google the man she is about to interview? Why does she assume he has “bifocals and a receding hairline”? She is as clueless as Natalie was. I know our heroines have to be flawed, but no Austen heroine is a total idiot. She sure sounds like one, though, when she tells her interviewee that she “didn’t have any time to prepare” so she basically knows nothing about him. When she goes to interview the man, she compares herself to Anastasia Steele going to interview Christian Grey (as in 50 Shades of). Groan. Holly, too, can’t manage money, and is constantly going to her dad (like Natalie and her grandfather) for money. What is happening? She also has a secret boyfriend, but she’s in her 20s, not usually the time to sneak around.

Finally the text tells us that she did google him but kept getting interrupted. A bit lame, but better. They make poor first impressions on each other, but why, when he calls to ask her out and to apologize, and when she finds him “a gorgeous, sexy man,” does she say no?

A positive learning experience for me involved some British food terms: “tuna on wholemeal,” “extra salad cream,” “no crisps,” “diet Ribena.”

It turns out Sasha is trying to get Holly fired; but why? Does she really think the Editor in Chief would move Holly up ahead of her? Sasha’s work motives seem entirely mercenary—she has to keep this job “at least until she found something better—like a rich husband”—so we are entirely without sympathy for her. We soon learn that she has “always loathed the smart, clever girls in school” and seems to see Holly James as “a pampered clever clogs.” Worse, Sasha leads Kate, whom Holly helped get a job and who is now Holly’s flatmate, to feel jealous and vengeful of her. But then her resentment reveals a disturbing childhood (six year old “listening as her mom and a strange man went at it in the next room,” for instance). Clearly, Oliver wants us to feel some pity for this character, but her behavior still makes that difficult.

The narration is heavy-handed again, as in the scene in which Holly’s dad invites her for a dinner party to which they have also invited John and Enid, who have “two sons, both grown. One [is] married, and the other [is] in banking or insurance or something equally boring.” We know immediately what’s going to happen, but of course Holly doesn’t. Maybe as a result of the “one too many vodka and grapefruits” the previous night. When Holly goes home for the weekend, she finally reads her published article on Alex, and two pieces of info that should not be there are there. Little does she know who is likely already in her house. It’s weird that Oliver basically borrows this part of the plot from Bridget Jones: Alex used to be “Hank, the little boy next door who’d sometimes shared her sandbox and backyard wading pool.”

Holly has a good idea for the magazine but also just for human interest: teen homelessness. Now, maybe we’ll learn what happened to the girl from the Prologue. When we finally get Zoe’s story, told not to Holly but to her street friend Sharon, it’s pretty bad but almost unbelievable. Why, for instance, would she have taken a phone with her if she didn’t want to be found? Whom did she think would get and pay the bill and see the calls? How can she check Erik’s voicemail? Why would she know his password? Why does she suddenly feel tender towards her “mum,” who trusted Erik over her own daughter? Why doesn’t Zoe go to the police with her evidence?

In other developments, Alex has two new clients; Dominic Heath and Marcus Russo, a “Michelin-starred chef.” Marcus is opening a “brasserie right around the corner” from Gordon Scots, Jamie Gordon’s place, made possible by “his half-brother Rhys’ financial stake.” Kate is slimy. She pretends to be Holly’s friend but is working for Sasha to unearth something about Holly that will get her fired. Jamie’s not totally in the clear either, first getting Alex drunk and then possibly deliberately sabotaging a third date between Alex and Holly because Jamie doesn’t think she should “be spending the night with Alex.” Marcus’s daughter Poppy has been missing; now those pieces are coming together.

Onto Wickham, maybe. This supposedly up and coming photographer pushes his way into meeting Zoe before Holly is ready, Kate is immediately attracted to him without knowing much about him, he was a runaway himself (why?), he gives his “word” to Zoe that no one will know the article is about her, and everyone quickly trusts him.

A list of the totally ridiculous: Holly blurts out when first meeting Camilla “you’re Red Thong!” What sound of mind adult shows so little self-control? And what potential Mr. Darcy threatens his Elizabeth with telling her father that she carries a “raspberry-flavoured condom at the ready” in her handbag? This is just absurd. When she realizes he hasn’t heard her message yet, she tries to take his phone. Why doesn’t she just apologize in person? Who are these people? I shouldn’t have been surprised when it lands in the vichyssoise. (But what Mr. Darcy would tell his would-be leading lady that “if you’ve ruined my phone, you’re buying me another”?) And why, when she needs to downplay the problem, would she make sure Alex knows the magazine does well in “Scotland and Wales, too,” not just England? Why would Holly think Alex would text her to say he’s suing her, and why her rather than the magazine? What chef and new restaurant owner would put his guests on the spot by insisting they classify their meal as a date or not? How could anyone thinking of running for office do a striptease karaoke dance at a hot new restaurant? Again, this doesn’t make any sense: Alex offers to cook Holly dinner on Friday. She insists that she cook him dinner instead on Sunday, knowing she “couldn’t cook.” Then why? Later, why does Holly easily tell Will, whom she barely knows and who is dating Sasha, Sasha’s private story, but to Alex, she gives a brush off answer when she actually trusts—or should trust—him? Absurd: when Holly is staying rent-free with Jamie, she brings home a stray cat and feeds it Jamie’s fancy “Devonshire cream” without even consulting him.

There are also awkward, and in some cases, non-existent, transitions. For example, Holly is sobbing about getting sacked. The text says,”she’d go home, she decided, to Oxfordshire. Today.” The next line, dialogue, is “excuse me. Have you seen this girl?” One might assume the person is asking Holly, but no, now we’re in a different scene, and it’s Shannon who is being asked about Zoe. No markings, let alone a chapter change. Why? Is this an attempt at style?

Forgive me, but at this point, my e-book got returned, and though I was mildly curious how it would turn out (and eager to see if I experienced a similar desire for Holly and Alex to find happiness as I ultimately did for Natalie and Rhys), I wasn’t curious enough to do anything about it.

Published in: on January 11, 2015 at 7:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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Christmas Present by Amanda Grange

*spoiler alert

This one opens with pregnant Elizabeth sharing happy news with Darcy: Jane and Bingley have just had their first child, a healthy baby boy named Charles. Though he feels strongly that Elizabeth should not travel so close to her confinement, she persuades him, and off they go to meet the new baby, see the new house, and spend Christmas with the Bingleys—and, it turns out, many of the characters we know.

Since we last saw everyone, there have been some changes but few of significance. Darcy has begun teasing Bingley, which Bingley attributes to Elizabeth teaching him “how to tease people” (17). Darcy seems to feel differently about Mrs. Bennet, “now that he [is] at a safe distance” from her, even “enjoy[ing] her foibles” (5). Jane is still sweet as ever, but even she has some devious plans, for instance, to leave Mrs. Bennet with Caroline when the former arrives (29). When Darcy and Elizabeth arrive, Caroline is already there, managing the house, and though Jane is up and about and feeling well, Caroline instructs her brother not to “allow” it (20). Somehow the reader doubts Charles would even attempt that. Caroline does seem to have wised up a bit here, even “quickly shut[ting]” her mouth in response to just a look from Elizabeth, having “no wish to cross wits” in a match during which Caroline “would come off the loser” (26). Mary is—probably unintentionally, but the other possibility remains—foot in the mouth as usual, commenting on the new Bingley baby that “very few of those who have greatness foretold for them” the way he has “manage to achieve such greatness” (33). Mrs. Bennet, in her infinite wisdom and generosity, has invited Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins to stay with Jane. This promises to be a very interesting Christmas.

This text is more discreet than many “sequels.” The Darcys take a walk in a garden, and we are told that Elizabeth makes a comment “saucily” to her husband, whereupon he kisses her (43). Three asterisks later, the text describes the time simply: “some time later” (44).

Though this text is beautifully written, there are some flaws in logic. Why would Lady Catherine, for instance, ask Kitty if she has a governess? She already knows from Lizzy that none of the girls did. If she thought they should, she wouldn’t ask, “do you” but rather a question about the governess (54). Also, why would Mrs. Bennet say Kitty and Mary should marry lords when her real plan is to marry Kitty off to Mr. Collins’ brother? (55) I thought it a little strange that Mr. Bennet picks “up a newspaper” and begins “to read it assiduously” when the ridiculous guests arrive (49). This isn’t Mr. Palmer; he should be enjoying the antics of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins, at least at the start of it all before he needs to retire to Bingley’s library to escape.

Interestingly, our perspective is limited to Darcy’s during *Elizabeth’s labor, so we are as relieved as he is when she is safely delivered. How terrible it must have been for loving husbands to be separated from their wives during those times. How wonderful, though, to be reunited with loved ones during this happy season, the way Elizabeth and Darcy are in this delightful novella.

Published in: on December 24, 2014 at 6:06 pm  Comments (1)  

Masterpiece’s Death Comes to Pemberley

My mom DVRd this adaptation of P.D. James’ novel, and we both eagerly anticipated watching (and analyzing) it together. Starring Matthew Ehys (Darcy), Anna Maxwell-Martin (Elizabeth), and Matthew Goode (Wickham), this adaptation made me think a lot about the difference between reading words and seeing pictures (I was already on heightened alert after having recently watched Words and Pictures, an intriguing film that explores the poignancy of the written word vs the painted image). There are many moments here that viewers just feel, not based on words but on shared looks or even just proximity.

Seeing the story reminds us more perhaps than the words how different life was for people in this time. For one thing, as my mom mentioned, “it’s so dark there!” Without electric light, even wealthy families like the Darcys are operating in darkness much of the time, and outside, it’s pretty much just the moon as the source of light, which makes nighttime excursions and investigations rather tricky.

We begin with servants (subtitles would have been really helpful), who we hear scream long before we see anything remotely scary, and even then we don’t see what scared the girls (a ghost), just a mysterious tomb, and certainly not a bloody body (in case you’re sensitive to such things). The tomb, of course, turns out to be of great import in the death coming to Pemberley, but no one knows that yet.

The next scene is delightfully light, as young Master Fitzwilliam is running through the house into the arms of Elizabeth. Mrs. Reynolds is busily helping Lizzy prepare for a ball. Elizabeth prepares the butler to serve the best brandy slowly so the ladies can walk to their carriages since there are no more available rooms for people to stay overnight. Darcy is yelling the first time we see him, which he says is normal before a ball. There is palpable chemistry between them, and his yells are soon conquered by his own smiles as he beholds his wife. Georgiana wants the kind of liveliness in marriage that her brother and Elizabeth have.

We meet Bidwell, whom Darcy calls “a good man” and who leaves his problems at home to polish the silver at Pemberley. His son Will has good days and bad. He is borrowing books from Elizabeth, so we know he is intelligent and values her recommendations. When Elizabeth leaves the Bidwell cottage, she sees a woman in purple in the woods, and Elizabeth calls out to her. The woman runs from Elizabeth only to return for her purple bonnet and then to hiss at Elizabeth like a deranged creature. Though Elizabeth understands that this woman is not Mrs. Riley’s ghost, it is important that we know the Riley story to understand just how passionate Darcy is about keeping Wickham’s neck out of the noose, no matter how much he despises him. When Elizabeth and Jane visit the cottage after a death occurs, Lizzy sees what’s really happening with Louisa Bidwell’s baby. Lizzy has a lot of suspicions now; why does Will pretend to be asleep when she visits? And who is Louisa’s baby’s father?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In addition to the usual cast of characters we would expect in such an adaptation (though we never see Bingley and never even hear about Mary or Kitty or the Collinses), we meet Henry Alveston, a lawyer. He and Georgiana greet each other warmly, Georgiana slipping and calling him “Henry” and then correcting herself. During a social engagement, Georgiana asks Alveston to accompany her with her music, and he, adorably, as she once did to Elizabeth, says, “please don’t make me sing.” They have been writing to each other, and that, plus the way they look at each other, communicates immediately that they should be together if he’s a good guy, which appearances suggest he is. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, would have it otherwise. Also interested in marrying Georgiana, he constantly finds fault with the polite younger man, who advocates not so much for himself as for Georgiana’s right to happiness and to make her own choices. All three—Elizabeth, Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam—see Georgiana’s interest in Henry, but only Elizabeth seems determined to let Georgiana marry for love.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arrive for the ball (Mr. Bennet entranced by the library once he arrives at Pemberley), and by the time hysterical Lydia comes rushing in announcing there have been gun shots and Mrs. Bennet falls into hysterics, Mr. Bennet desperately wants to go with the rest of the men looking for Wickham and Denny. His one word to Darcy is said in such a tone that everything he is feeling is communicated: “please.” Darcy understands immediately; who wouldn’t? Mr. Bennet thus accompanies Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam on the search for the missing men, leaving Elizabeth to calm the hysterical women of her family.

The writer and director juxtapose several key scenes effectively. When the characters learn, for instance, that Denny was hit hard in two places, we can see Darcy thinking. The next scene has Elizabeth similarly thinking, watching Colonel Fitzwilliam burn a letter. They’re both analyzing what they’re seeing—and trying to understand what they are not seeing. The stresses of the murder, the guests, and the enormous pressures of managing this estate seem unbearable, but then Darcy and Elizabeth hug, and somehow we feel everything will work out right. At one point, we see Louisa carving a heart into a tree and crying. In the next scene, the magistrate sees the heart. Then we go to Jane comforting Elizabeth in bed about Elizabeth’s own heartache. The very placement of small scenes heightens the effect of each.

Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is the magistrate to whom Darcy reports the incident. He finds himself having to defend his father’s hope in Wickham to Hardcastle, and Mrs. Reynolds doesn’t like the Hardcastles, as she demonstrates by looking away from him after he gives her a command and looking to Mrs. Darcy for orders. It turns out that Hardcastle’s father has done a pretty horrible thing (prosecuting a little boy who poached something, resulting in the boy being hanged), but Hardcastle himself, though we don’t ever really like him, knows what it is to fight the shadow of a family name. That theme the film visits several times, including through Georgiana, who feels pressure to marry Colonel Fitzwilliam not just from her brother but even more from her own sense of duty to her family name and responsibility. The shame from the Darcy ancestor buried in the woods is one of neglecting duty. Darcy won’t even discuss it with Lizzy, but Georgiana does: “Here lies the man who put personal inclination before public duty.”

That tension is very much alive in the current generation of Darcys since, after all, Darcy chose to marry for love, and now Georgiana wants to do the same. After the scandal erupts, and Darcy seems more inclined to push a respectable known entity on his sister, Lizzy questions him, “Security? What about happiness?” Even when Darcy is snippety and says that Georgiana should not make a decision in “sentimental haste,” Elizabeth does not back down. She does, however, think Darcy is regretting his own “sentimental haste” in marrying her. Georgiana is the one who comes to comfort Lydia when Wickham is taken away, and it’s a beautiful moment for her, as she uses her own past suffering to support someone who also suffered because of Wickham.

The real tension, arguably, of the film, comes from the strain on the marriage. Even after six years, it seems neither Darcy nor Elizabeth is completely sure of the other’s love. Lydia casts doubt in Darcy’s mind: Lizzy married him for money. Lizzy’s own doubts result largely from the shame her family is still brining Darcy and from her memories of people being so judgmental when Darcy first married her. Lydia is, in most of her appearances, morally repugnant. She wipes away fake tears, and fakes almost passing out on Darcy’s arm as he walks her down the row in church. He tells Lizzy this is “intolerable.” Then Lizzy tries to hold his hand, but he pulls away. Even the viewer might be inclined to see Darcy’s behavior as regret for the marriage, though Jane wisely reminds Elizabeth (at the start of Part 2, after Elizabeth reflects on Darcy’s awful proposal, feels insecure about Darcy, and tells Jane he “regrets his match” to her) that love like hers and Darcy’s doesn’t waver. (My mom, one of four sisters, loved how the sisters helped and supported each other throughout the story, including Lizzy and Georgiana.) Much of the time, we’re not so sure, but just when we think we can’t take it anymore, Darcy covers Elizabeth up while she’s sleeping so at least we, even if not yet she, know he loves her still.

Darcy keeps trying to protect Wickham, saying he isn’t violent. He doesn’t want another innocent person hanged, even if he hates the guy. That’s not to say Wickham has been redeemed; he’s still an ass. We see Colonel Fitzwilliam get really angry about how many people Wickham has put in danger and how he has jeopardized Darcy’s reputation (even if it turns out he’s actually worried about Georgiana’s). He lies. (ex: Henry, who is trying to help Wickham, asks a good question: why did Denny run into the woods? Wickham’s answer doesn’t add up.) But Darcy is pretty sure Wickham didn’t murder his best friend. Part 1 ends with Darcy visiting Wickham in jail. Both men remember the hanging of young Patrick Riley, a traumatic experience for both young boys to witness. Wickham is leaning against a counter, and Darcy goes and stands next to him, and Wickham says, “I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, but not this,” looking in Darcy’s eyes, and Darcy says, “I believe you.” Visually and emotionally and verbally, this is a beautiful moment between the men.

Part 2 develops the doubt between Darcy and Elizabeth, but also adds to it several other tensions and conflicts. Poor Jane takes Lydia and Mrs. Bennet with her to Highmarten, so at least that’s some pressure off the Darcys, but by the time Elizabeth and Georgiana have their big confrontation, Darcy and Elizabeth are hardly speaking, which creates far worse tension than the actual inquest for viewers who care more about them than about Wickham.

Nonetheless, if this is justice, I can hardly imagine injustice. The jury is drunk and incomplete. When witnesses are called up, people cheer them on. “OMG,” my mom said, horrified by their conduct. When Mr. Pratt milks the crowd for his own glory, my mom cried out, “They’re clapping! This is horrible!” Then they boo Wickham, whom they call a “liar!” But my mom really had trouble with the man in charge asking the jurors to retire to decide Wickham’s fate, “preferably not to the bar.” She couldn’t even finish the sentence: “They can drink and then—that’s so unfair!” Darcy really needs help, and when he arrives at the inquest, Henry Alveston is there, offering support—and seats—after Georgiana has rejected him. He calls Darcy “Sir.” Darcy must, I thought, see how good this guy is. They even both wear beige overcoats. The courtroom scene is as awful as the inquest, so much so that respectable Alveston bursts out in protest when the prosecutor is obviously unfair. Only Alveston maintains some faith in justice. Wickham has to be judged on the evidence alone. Seeing Wickham’s face when Darcy explains he did not think Wickham’s “confession” meant Wickham actually did the killing was a moving experience.

The film makes frequent use of flashback scenes, first from Elizabeth’s point of view, but later from Darcy’s and even from Wickham’s (still thinking about Louisa when he is imprisoned after the inquest). The moment when Darcy sees the mysterious woman in court is so eerie, and then immediately we’re in a flashback when he asked her for Wickham’s whereabouts after he absconded with Lydia the first time, so we know exactly who she is before her name is said. Or at least we know her name—her actual identity she explains to Darcy when he follows her outside. Darcy runs after Mrs. Younge before she throws herself in front of a carriage, and his cry “no!” is so emotional. The music changes, and everything slows down to emphasize his grief and the hat that now we understand. When Darcy goes to Wickham to tell him what happened and to comfort him, I thought again, this is a man.

Lady Catherine makes a delightful appearance (delightful to us, that is, not to anyone else). Elizabeth says “how intriguing” and “delightful” in response to her now aunt’s ridiculous comments, but this Lady Catherine is clueless that she is being mocked, which seemed inconsistent with what we know of her from the text.

Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam is being so insensitive to Georgiana. When he takes her hand, she looks so uncomfortable. How can he do this when he sees her face? But it isn’t until Colonel Fitzwilliam admits to trying to shield his future bride from “further taint,” adding that even if Wickham hangs, he “will take her,” that Darcy realizes how dangerously close he was to allowing his beloved sister to make a terrible mistake. Instead, he goes to her, asking her please to “marry for love” and “when [she has] that person” not to “doubt” him. In a sweeping shot, we see Elizabeth appear on the stairway, and now Darcy tells Elizabeth how sorry he is for doubting her and her judgment; in a beautiful scene between them, my mom said, “Whoa. They actually took his jacket off. I’ve never seen this in Jane Austen.”

Indeed. After their reunion (spoiler alert: more than a jacket comes off), Darcy asks Elizabeth to tell Lydia about the affair, but it turns out that Lydia is a lot smarter than we give her credit for being. She has learned how to live in her marital situation, and that does not include hearing details she will not be able to forget. The real concern, then, shifts to Wickham’s guilty sentence. We know he is innocent, but who did it, and how can someone prove it? Elizabeth figures it out, and gets the real story. My mom said: “I had no idea it would be him.” The father-son joint apology made me cry.

With no time to spare, Elizabeth runs up to the gallows and stops it with the judge. We are so sad for the other poor souls dying that way, but the relief on Darcy and Wickham’s faces was so touching. I loved that after everything Wickham has done to Darcy, it is still Darcy who goes to his side, relieved he has been spared.
And then, back the story shifts to images of love, first Georgiana and Henry kissing on the grounds. “Oh, those early moments of love,” the more seasoned Darcys reminisce. They are soon followed by sheer joy with a happy announcement on Pemberley lawn, and the last images are of Darcy swinging master Fitzwilliam around and Lizzy’s happy face. A truly happy ending!

Published in: on November 16, 2014 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  

Jane Austen Quick Notes

I was delighted when my friend and colleague (DB) helped me find ibook’s latest Pride and Prejudice. It opens with music and cut-out characters and continues with brief lectures by Elizabeth Bergstone, described as a “public speaker and guest lecturer at Elon University and Salem College.” She has a light British accent. In the introduction to the times, she tells us a bit about Austen’s “ordinary” life as contrasted by the more tempestuous and revolutionary worlds of France and America. She feels certain Austen read Wollstonecraft and posits relationships between Wollstonecraft’s ideal woman and Elizabeth Bennet and also more obviously between Jane and Cassandra Austen and Lizzy and Jane Bennet.

Then we get a 5-minute summary. Characters get sketches. Mr. Collins is “dull, pompous, and boring.” I thought I talked fast. She talks really fast, but still the story is clear and even includes her version of details like Darcy turns white; Wickham, red with definitive confidence. Our hostess looks positively delighted by the happy ending and with Lady Catherine condescending to visit Pemberley.

In the ten-minute summary, Mary assumes an oddly seductive pose, and we get a slower version of events. When Bergstone takes us through the story, she assumes the personas briefly, including being snobby when she describes Darcy at first. She tells us, a bit oversimplistically, that Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins because he’s dull. How about pretentious and idiotic?

Then there’s a lesson on settings, beginning with Longbourne and the details we know about it—two stories, farm land, large enough for the seven of them and several servants. She talks about entail, but she doesn’t use the word. In the pictures of the five girls, Lydia is not the tallest, which I found bothersome in its inattention to detail. To remember the order of the sisters, Bergstone gives us the phrase “Just everyday middle class living” (Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, Lydia) as a mnemonic device. In the segment on Lucas Lodge, Bergstone provides an explanation of how William made a little speech to the king, who was delighted, and then knighted him. I had been a little fuzzy on those details, so I appreciated this recap. Meryton she describes as one main street (inn, dress shop, probably a church though it’s not mentioned). I noticed Bergstone was not wearing glasses for this one and thought maybe she dressed up for her metaphorical walk through town? She also has them off to describe Darcy. Netherfield she describes as five characters come to live there. In this clip, she says the oldest one is Caroline, but later that detail is corrected to say Louisa was older. I was already a bit doubtful of the accuracy of the information (and the editing: how could they miss the discrepancy?) when she shared the mnemonic for Netherfield as: Big Classy House That is Delightful (Bingley, Caroline, Hursts Darcy), which I found patronizing.

The lessons include a lot of repetition, as though she’s giving us a cheat sheet but also trying to help us remember what’s on there.

“Mahalo” pops up in the upper right-hand corner regularly, which would be cute if we understood how that Hawaiian greeting relates to any of this. Later I deduced that it’s a company devoted to the idea of “learn[ing] anything.”

The next part of the guide is the Characters Interrelationships Map, followed by lessons on individual characters. In the Lesson on Lizzy, Bergstone says that the key is: “Lizzy is lively. Lively Lizzy.” Okay, so this is not quite Austen for geniuses, but maybe for people who are struggling, these word games will help. Jane’s picture is always with one arm outstretched onto a wall, which to me, seems a bit bold for her. Lizzy’s is more retiring, with her hands clasped in front of her, but she is the smallest, which fits with the book. Bergstone calls Mr. Darcy the most important male character, which I suppose fits the standard reading if such a judgment has to be made at all and if you can seriously exclude Mr. Bennet. She includes some lines from the text in the character analysis, and there’s a written summary of all the oral lessons. With most, but not all, characters, Bergstone offers a simple device to help non-experts keep track of who’s who, alliterative sayings like “Mr. Darcy was distant” and “Caroline is cold and calculating.” The quotation on Mr. Bingley is incorrectly attributed to a “Mrs. Bingley.” “Mr. Bingley is big-hearted.”

Navigating the ibook might necessitate a Mahalo mini-lesson. There are cards you can flip to review notes on character, and there are “chapters” that review a selection of chapters at a time, but it took me some time to figure out how to get from one section to the next (between types of sections, not within sections, which is usually just a swipe left).

I eagerly anticipated how Bergstone would simply the themes of the novel, but I wasn’t prepared for her to call “marriage” a theme (what idea about marriage is Austen conveying?, I would ask my students). She begins by saying how Lizzy and Darcy are temperamentally fit but then doesn’t explain (even something as simple as they’re so different, but they complement each other). I was a little horrified when I heard that Lizzy is only comfortable being submissive because Darcy is superior. She did finally get to Lizzy’s liveliness being an asset, but I was still smarting over the submission comment. The marriage section deals with the ideal, the happy, the practical, the tolerated, and the arranged with a marriage from the story illustrating each type.(Where are the Gardiners in this? I would have characterized their marriage as either of the first two. )

Then comes the whole text by chapter. Every group (after ch 1-4, for instance) gets a “quick overview” and an “in-depth summary,” both of which review the mnemonic like Big Classy House that is Delightful. There are quotations and even a quiz. There are videos for each chunk as Bergstone talks us through the text. After the first ball, for instance, she explains that everyone got together to talk about the ball. She really delights in retelling the story, so even though she doesn’t get every detail exactly right (for instance, saying Darcy doesn’t notice the mud on Elizabeth’s gown because her cheeks were brightened by exercise, whereas an expert reader would say he does notice but is too attracted to her to care), but the gist is there, and she’s so enthusiastic, it’d be tough not to be in response.

Plus the little illustrations that accompany her talking make this quick guide more like a comic book, which I know would help along several of my buddies who really want to master this text, if for no other reason than to impress me in casual conversation. For them, and for anyone who needs a little help keeping track of everything, this is literally a quick guide, and it’s fun and easy.

Published in: on November 1, 2014 at 2:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

This series asks modern writers of note to “adapt” Jane Austen novels for the modern world. I imagined Trollope’s greatest difficulty would be developing credible reasons why the Dashwood women couldn’t just work to support themselves; they should no longer be helpless. Belle Dashwood, mother to Elinor, Margaret, and Marianne, with her “mother’s propensity for drama and impulsiveness,” is upset to have to vacate “paradise” because of Fanny Dashwood, her deceased husband’s daughter-in-law. Margaret comments that their father couldn’t “leave [Belle] anything much because he hadn’t married” her. Elinor has the disadvantage of being able to see her father’s choices not as romantic but as careless—no marriage, no “responsible will” to secure his partner, and relying on “the charity and whim of an old man” whose desires end up going in another direction. She has been studying architecture. Belle was a teacher before she married. Margaret is 13 and in private school. Marianne spends her time with art and music and books.

We sense immediately how modern Trollope has made the story with Marianne beginning to curse (“shut the f–“) the first time we hear her speak. There are also some odd anachronisms; Margaret and “her school friends,” for instance, hold “up their splayed fingers in a ‘w,’ to demonstrate the ‘whatever’ shape,” but she also has an ipod. Is this 90s Clueless with 2010s devices? Everyone in this story has a nickname, and though the characters don’t seem offended by them as they might have been during Austen’s time, they became occasionally annoying to the reader. Sir John is Jonns, Willoughby is Wills, Margaret is “Mags,” Marianne is M, and Elinor is Ellie, for instance.

Sir John Middleton, a “double dinosaur” because he’s both a baronet and inheritor of the Barton estate, has spent some time in the army before becoming “managing director” of a company that makes “specialist pumps for desalination plants.” He also hosts great parties. When he meets Mary Jennings, an heiress of a clothing company and “also a considerable capital sum,” Sir John becomes “an admirable entrepreneur,” assisted by his mother-in-law, Abigail (Abi)Jennings, who brings the story of the Dashwood girls to his attention. In this version, Sir John goes to Norland to explain his plan for them and presents “a slide show of [their] new home” on his laptop (after Margaret offers to help him). Mrs. Dashwood is thrilled by the prospect, but each of the girls has her concerns (Ellie: finishing school, M: her music and the newness of the cottage; Mags: leaving all her friends).

Belle gets a lot more credit for intelligence (and wit) here than in the original, putting Fanny and John in place with a smile. When Fanny praises John for giving them “somewhere to live all summer, rent free,” for instance, Belle “brightly” responds with an affirmation “you let us stay on in our own home for a while and now we’ve found another one to go to! Perfect.” She does, however, foolishly throw Edward’s promise to visit them in Devon in Fanny’s face, which may bring a temporary “triumph” but which will cause problems. Belle is also a force of positive energy, exclaiming about the “new life” they are about to begin in Devon, as they drive away from Norland. Belle is also much more concerned about the speed and passion of the Willoughby-Marianne courtship than Mrs. Dashwood the original seems to be, confiding in her husband’s spirit that she’s “anxious” about Marianne’s situation (rightly so since the private visit to Allenham yields more than just some time unchaperoned in this version).

This Elinor is usually the sensible woman we would expect. From Elinor’s perspective, Marianne has inherited not only “their father’s asthma, but also his propensity for depression,” which may explain—or even negate—the difference of “sensibility” between the two sisters. Ellie, though, has more of it here than the original does—openly sad about the comments of her school coordinator when she tells him she can’t finish her studies and even admitting to M she knows Edward likes her. Here, she chooses not to follow him on Facebook and instead to focus on practical matters, like “packing up books.” As in the original, Elinor suffers quietly, but she does occasionally speak up, such as asking “What about me?” when it seems the needs of everyone but Ellie are being accommodated at Barton. She imagines how “extraordinary” it must be “to be able to surrender oneself so completely” to music, or books, or love the way Marianne does. She, by contrast, knows it is “unwise . . . to think too much about hearts.” She thinks herself “a little cold” for lacking faith in Wills and in this relationship, though we know she is right to do so. A few uncharacteristic moves occur, first, when Elinor, overwhelmed by the treehouse Thomas is building for Margaret and the prospect of paying for it, “seize[s] a saucepan lid” and flings “it wildly in frustration across the kitchen,” and then, when M finally learns about Edward, Elinor “writh[es] a little, on the floor.” First of all, Elinor wouldn’t “writhe,” and secondly, how does someone writhe “a little”? But, true to her original, Elinor is quick-thinking. Rather than a long period of despair in the face of Lucy’s revelation, Elinor quickly realizes that “everywhere [Edward] turn[s], there [is] a woman demanding something of him which he could not possibly deliver,” and that she is the one “he has actually chosen of his own free will,” even if he can’t actually offer her anything. Elinor does a lot more self-reproaching here than she seems to need and certainly more than the original needs, such as scolding herself for “lecturing Marianne about facing herself rather than seeking a rescuing soulmate” when she herself has been “stupid, stupid Miss Sensible.”

There are some particularly immature moments of our characters, interspersed with seemingly random narrative digs at various groups of people who didn’t really need to be taken down here. Little brat Harry is “clutching a giant American-style cookie” when the girls leave their home. Not sure why we have to bring Americans into this. Margaret isn’t much better then Harry, immediately deeming Mrs. Jennings “fat . . . as well as . . . a sick bitch.” At least Mrs. Jennings has the spirit to call Mags on her assumptions, claiming she is “far too fat for any self-respecting broomstick.” Margaret is annoying when she “eagerly . . . spear[s] [M’s] potatoes” when M is upset after Wills leaves. There’s an unnecessary slam of “right-wing politics” linked with the men (why just the men?) at the dinner in which the girls meet Mrs. Ferrars, too.

Marianne is frustrating as well. Though at times she does seem to understand Elinor better here than their mother does, explaining that Ellie “won’t let herself despair about things she can’t have,” she foolishly downgrades Ellie’s feelings by saying Ellie does “sort of miss Ed, in her way.” Marianne is drawn to Allenham in large part because it has “never substantially changed” since 1640. I’m not sure how rain affects the asthmatic worse than other people, but even Margaret knows to give Marianne her own fleece when they get caught in the rain; why does M come so ill-prepared that her 13-year-old sister has to help her? I found Willoughby unbelievable, even for him. He says “Ye gods” when Mags tells him about her sister’s asthma attack and later offers M a car (rather than a horse), which Ellie says M cannot accept (and even Belle agrees with Elinor here). They can’t afford the insurance, the taxes, or the fuel. M, too, is different and more sensible (sometimes) here, as when she agrees she cannot accept the car after Ellie explains why, but M is annoying inconsistent—which may be in keeping with Austen’s version. She defends Ellie as “private” but then tells Mags M herself doesn’t “need to be” since M is “proud of how” she feels. Why, then, won’t she show anyone else her ring? M is most annoying, however, when she tells herself she “must be forgiving and understanding about Elinor’s limitations” since Elinor doesn’t “have a passionate bone in her body.”

Margaret takes cues from both sisters, being annoying again when she “require[s] Elinor”—who is going out of her way to pick her up from school—“to park round the corner so that none of [Margaret’s] school friends would see” the car. But she at least apologizes. Marianne, by contrast, yells at Ellie that she is “so completely buttoned up” that she “can’t even begin to understand someone like” M. Elinor then texts an apology! Margaret is also trying to learn how things work, asking Elinor if woman “have to have boyfriends” and if Marianne is “overdoing it a bit” with the Wills drama. Margaret matures as Marianne does, staying “calm and together” when Elinor calls with the terrifying news about M’s condition. Margaret also generously offers her precious tree-house when Elinor and Edward need some time. We know M is recovering when she starts calling Wills by his full name again, telling her mom she is “pretty well over John Willoughby.”

Other characters worthy of note: The Steele sisters are annoying as ever. This Nancy Steele uses ridiculous forms of words like “amazeballs” (for “amazing”) and “totes inappropes.” William Brandon, who served with Sir John in Bosnia, now “devotes himself to good works,” much as Edward wants to do but hasn’t yet found a way to do. There’s a new character—Peter Austen, who has personally benefitted from Bill Brandon’s help and now is in a position as an architect to get Elinor some work assisting his “chief designer.” Charlotte and Tommy Palmer are fun. She’s hugely pregnant, pretty, and eager to talk. He uses his BlackBerry constantly, claims he married Charlotte “for [her] body,” but then kindly asks Elinor if she’s okay. Thomas, Jonno’s man-servant, seems to show a lot of attention to Belle Dashwood’s comfort, such as leaving kindling “arranged as carefully as breadsticks in a wicker basket.” This is a modern story, so I thought it possible Mrs. Dashwood wouldn’t be left behind on the romance journey, but Trollope took that story in a different direction. This Robert Ferrars (Robbie) attends a classical music event because he was “asked here by a duchess” who wants him “to organise her daughter’s wedding,” which I think was supposed to be the cue to the audience that this Robert Ferrars wouldn’t be enjoying Lucy in any way except outfitting her.

And as for Edward (here, Ed), his big revelation is far too explicit here and undercuts the impact of Austen’s understated one. (The Marianne-Bill romance is more smoothly handled, with M helping Bill relax by mimicking “Lucy Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars, and Fanny Dashwood having the vapours,” which leaves everyone “sobbing with laughter.”) Edward is so happy once Elinor accepts his offer that, when John calls for him, he asks how it feels to be “pussy-whipped by two women,” which hardly seems necessary or in keeping with Edward’s character, even an angry Edward.

The novel ends as it should, with Elinor and Edward experiencing true joy, Marianne growing closer to Bill, Mrs. Dashwood looking for a teaching position, and Wills “more rueful than angry” that his own behavior cost him Jane Smith’s fortune AND the woman he loves.

Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 7:29 am  Comments (1)  
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