06 May, 2009

Book 10 - Austenland, or: That Colin Firth is a bit of alright, what-what? Rather!

ETA: I apologise profusely for the abuse of italics in this post. I wish I could say it won't happen again.

Vaguely related link of the day:
On the off-chance you don't read Steph's blog, I found a recent post of hers particularly interesting. Ever wondered how authors decide how their stories end? Read Authors: Your Endings? to find out.

And now, to business. Have you notice it's been getting all sexy to be into Jane Austen lately? I mean, obviously it's always been sexy to be into Jane Austen, but we seem to be going through a "hey guys who is this austen lady can we make any more moneys off her" phase. In terms of film we've had Bride and Prejudice (cheesy but delicious), the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice (not too bad), the Austen fictional biography Becoming Jane (freakin' awful) and last year's British comedy mini-series Lost in Austen (hilariously awesome). And as well as those dreadful Austen "sequels" people are continuously churning out (seriously, not a single one of them is worth reading) we've got modern, playful books like Mandy Hubbard's Prada and Prejudice.

Can you guys hear something coming? It sounds like... a bandwagon! I better jump on!

Title: Austenland (2007)

Author: Shannon Hale

Why this book?
After Rapunzel's Revenge I was interested in reading some more of Hale's books, and this one stood out as being quite different from her other books - plus, I do love me some Jane Austen.

What's it all about anyway?
Every time another relationship ends for American Jane Hayes, she once again finds herself daydreaming about her one, perfect man - Mr Darcy, as portrayed by Colin Firth. She can't help comparing each of her boyfriends to him and finding them wanting, yet she's equally determined every time she falls in love that this one will turn out to be her perfect man. She's embarrassed by her obsession with Mr Darcy, and yet she's unable to kick the habit of daydreaming about him.

And then her great-aunt dies and leaves her a very odd bequest: a visit to Pembrook Park, an English country manor where women can live their fantasies with actors who take on the roles of Austenesque characters - the cads, the gentleman, the busybody housewives, the rank-obsessed snobs. At first, Jane is reluctant to go, but she realises that maybe this is the key to her kicking her Darcy habit once and for all.

Jane finds life at Pembrook Park farcical - why would she want to fall in love, even pretend in love, with dashing gentlemen who are really just actors? Yet slowly she finds herself drawn into the pretence, and as she finds herself caught between two men she begins to wonder - how fake is life in Austenland, really? Worse, she begins to realise that in all her dreams of Mr Darcy, she might have somehow ignored the real significance of Jane Austen's books...

The Good and the Bad I actually almost put down this book as soon as I had started it, and it was over the silliest thing. Let's play a guessing game - see if you can guess what it was in this excerpt that infuriated me:

"The pesky movie version was the culprit. Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course)."

Of course. Of course. What the actual hell, Jane? What do you mean, of course? If you had said, "except Mansfield Park (of course)" it would have been fine. Mansfield Park is possibly the most tepid love story ever written by anyone, featuring Fanny Price, who is the literary equivalent of a used tissue and about as useful as one (although less interesting). Every time I read it I secretly pray that the book will have somehow changed since I last read it and she'll end up with Henry Crawford, not the dull and pious Edmond who I yearn to knee in the balls. But Northanger Abbey? Sure, it's the least subtle and the least polished of Austen's works, but it's by far the most fun, and Catherine is a bright, playful character whose faults make her supremely endearing. Jane, you did not just of course me about Northanger Abbey. It is second only to Persuasion on the list entitled "Austen's novels, ranked from best to worst." There, I told you it was silly.

Anyway, I pressed on, and Jane and I ended up getting on quite well. Her reluctance to become another of the slightly crazed female guests at Pembrook, yet her interest in seeing if living her fantasy is quite what she'd imagined, somehow makes her wonderfully real. She has this intense desire for a beautiful romance which makes her obsess over the way each and every one of her past relationship have ended, which could have been irritating (I really don't like reading about romance-obsessed characters!) but instead comes across as almost comical, in a good way.

The other female characters are equally well-drawn. There's Mrs Wattlesbrook, the woman who oversees Pembrook, who insists on 'proper' behaviour at all times, has no sense of humour, and who is quite the snob - and yet who quite freely discusses her clients' personal business with whomever she feels like. Eliza Charming is quite hilarious, a 50-something American woman who is fixated on landing one of the actors and continually makes the worst faux pas, and is particularly awful about speaking English-English - "How do you do Miss Erstwhile, what-what? Spit spot I hope, rather."

The biggest let-down is really the book's conclusion. From the beginning it's obvious which of her two suitors Jane is going to end up with (at least, it is if you know your Austen!) and even a couple of good twists thrown in couldn't persuade me otherwise. And that would have been fine, except - well, Jane spends so much time dithering over which guy she likes, and whether she really likes either of them, and whether she maybe ought to just be by herself for a while, that at the end I wasn't really convinced that she should have ended up with anyone. It was plain that the guy in question really liked her, but it kind of felt like Jane was saying, "Well, he likes me, and he's a nice guy, so... hey! I suppose I might as well take him." I didn't get the feeling that this relationship was going to be any different from all her past disasters, and that made it a little unsatisfying.

So should I read it or what?
I wasn't blown away, but it was a good light read - if you're an Austen fan, and you're looking for something fun and not too mentally taxing, it's probably worth a go. Otherwise? Don't bother.


Angie said...

Great review. I've noticed, while searching through other book blogs, that there seems to be a ton of Jane Austen related books flooding the market this year - and you're right, most of them are awful. But for some reason I can't stop myself from reading them even though I know they're going to be awful.

HelenB said...

I don't mind the 'modern' takes on JA, like this book, but the ones written as sequels or prequels to her work really are truly awful! With the exception of a book I read once which retold the events of P&P from Mr Darcy's POV, and I think that it worked because it was a labour of love rather than someone out for an easy dollar...

Katie Edwards said...

Absolutely "hear, hear!" with regards to Northanger Abbey. Alas that comment has discouraged me from reading this novel - anyone who can dismiss Northanger like that is not someone whose mind I'd like to share - even in book form. ;)