Eligible–Curtis Sittenfeld (Audiobook)

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I guess it’s very nineteenth-century of Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld to publish under a male pseudonym, and I realize it’s her authorial name, but it struck me as odd for a piece in the Austen project, given that Austen was one of the first to publish as a woman and forego the fiction of male authorship.

Some reviewers have panned this book, some because it’s an Austen remake.  As someone who absolutely adores Pride & Prejudice, I would never dismiss someone for writing an Austen homage novel.  I enjoyed listening to this novel because I love Pride & Prejudice and all of the characters, but there were several elements of this remake that I did not enjoy or that puzzled me.

First, the sexual tension (or ST, as it is referred to in Eligible), is crucial to Pride & Prejudice.  How can there be that tension when Darcy and Liz sleep together so early in the novel–and in such an anticlimactic way?  That was seriously disappointing and contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the novel. I do not object to the more modern nature of the conceit–I object to the fact that the conceit was not carried out in a way to retain the tension crucial to the original–the whole reason, likely, that readers have continued to make this Austen’s most popular novel.  I wanted to see what Sittenfeld was going to do.  I did not care that much about the two characters “finally” getting together because they had already gotten together.

Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennett is true to the primary character traits found in Austen’s Liz for the most part, but she is just less likable and, at times, less believable.  She cannot stand Darcy, but spills her guts to him when they meet up during a run and then, oops, realizes to whom she is talking.  Liz is a journalist and lives in New York City, so presumably is fairly sophisticated, but when she learns her new brother-in-law is transgender, she asks a ridiculous question about his genitalia and seems more like her Midwestern backward mother than the urbane woman Sittenfeld is trying to portray.

Mrs. Bennett is racist, a lovely characteristic, and a shopaholic.  She avidly desires her daughters to marry, but reacts very poorly to Lydia marrying a handsome, successful man because he is transgender.  Sittenfeld’s situation here, a replacement for Wickham’s abduction of the underage and desperately naive Lydia, just does not work.  It makes Mrs. Bennett too awful and Darcy’s intervention underwhelming and uncompelling.  It also makes the crucial scene where Liz receives the letter about Lydia’s abduction and Darcy’s reaction to it, which she misreads so terribly, also not work in Sittenfeld’s version.  The stakes are too low, the situation too ridiculous, even if likely in today’s conservative Midwest.

Throughout the novel, Lydia accuses Mary of being a lesbian.  When Mary learns that Lydia has married a transgender man, she gleefully calls Lydia a lesbian. Again, tone deaf on this whole sexual identity issue.  Most bizarrely, Sittenfeld ends the novel with a profile of Mary including her choice of dildo, frequency of its use, personal hygiene practices (no shaving) that seems to be mocking the only woman in the novel who does not follow at least some element of conventional femininity.  Mary cannot just be a woman content to be herself with her own independent pursuits.  She must be a caricature of a feminist, although a feminist who definitely does not want to be thought to be a lesbian and who relishes calling her sister one for marrying a transgender man.  Ugh.

That this is the Pride & Prejudice chapter in the Austen Project is seriously disappointing.  That this was published to such fanfare is seriously disappointing.  Regardless, my family did not see me without headphones, finding excuses to listen to the book (biking, gardening, cleaning) for several days as I lost myself, again, in the story of Liz and Darcy.  God help us if this becomes a movie, but I fear it may.

Finished 8/11/16

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen–Charlie Lovett

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With a subtitle like that, would could go wrong?  Add an author who was an antiquarian book dealer and this reader is sold.

Lovett’s novel is lovely because it is a mystery, it is set in England, and it involves Jane Austen.  Sometimes the writing is a little clunky, particularly in the first and last chapters.  Love comes very quickly in the last chapter without much build-up.  The lovers meet in the first chapter with a stilted argument that could have taken place in any American sitcom.  The premise drew me in, however.  Sophie Collingwood has recently graduated from Oxford and, with the luxury allowed to those from affluent families (her family inherited a fairly large estate), she is trying to decide what to do with her life post-graduation and hanging around in Oxford until she decides.  She meets Eric Hall after overhearing an obnoxious remark about women and Jane Austen that he uttered in a pub and events move quickly from there, with Eric pursuing her across the countryside to her parent’s country home and provoking her father over dinner in a way no friend or family member would have dared, all capped by a midnight kiss in the garden that curls Sophie’s toes before he dashes off to France.

Between chapters about Sophie, Lovett interweaves chapters about Jane Austen and her relationship with the much, much older Mr. Mansfield, a clergyman who is staying in the gatehouse of the local earl’s estate.  Mr. Mansfield becomes Jane’s literary confidante and even hears her confession of a childhood sin that still haunts her and that ultimately becomes the motivation for writing Pride and Prejudice.

As Jane’s relationship with Mansfield and her confidence in her own writing grows, Sophie learns of the death of her beloved uncle, who taught her to love books, and moves into his London flat and begins working for one of his book dealer friends.  Intrigue begins when two customers ask her to find a second edition of an obscure volume of morality tales by a Reverend Mansfield.  One of the customers woos her in person while the other threatens her by phone and knows too many of her daily routine details for comfort.

The novel was a fun read and, for a P & P fan, a great excuse to read more about Darcy and Lizzie and to envision the countryside Austen saw.  The mystery kept the plot moving.  Overall, a nice weekend read.

Finished 11/23/15

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin–Jill Lepore

Books of history are not often considered quick and consistently interesting reads so when a book of history becomes a National Book Award Finalist, historians and readers should look closely at how the book is crafted.  Jill Lepore dedicates a section on her method and sources and, important for a work of popular history, includes nearly 100 pages of end notes.  The scholarly apparatus is present, but not distracting to the flow of the narrative.  Lepore tells a story (in fact, several stories).  A problem she addresses in her method section, which becomes apparent in a few places in the text, is not letting Jane’s story be overwhelmed by the stories of Ben Franklin and the American Revolution.  The latter are big, better-known, better-sourced stories. Franklin collected his own writings, wrote about himself, and created admirers, including those who lived long after his death, who also collected his writings.  Another interesting historiographical problem Lepore addresses is the decision of the first editors of the letters to standardize (to the time in which they were edited) the spelling and grammar of Jane’s writing, thus erasing the gap between her education and that of her brother as well as minimizing the achievement of her writing and continuing to write.

Jane’s sexual choices had a much bigger impact on the course of her life than did those of her brother (not so surprising in theory, but watching the long-term consequences play out was painful in the way that seeing how much one actually pays for a car or a home after compound interest is added in can be painful).  Benjamin has an illegitimate child, yet goes on to make a good marriage and thrive financially and professionally.  Jane becomes pregnant at a young age and marries an ill-advised spouse who seems to have been an emotional and financial drain on her throughout their married lives and to have influenced her sons, at least, whether through genetics or learned behaviors or both, to have been similar drains on her.  Her biological imperative, in an age without reliable birth control, meant that, at the age of thirty-six, “she had been pregnant or nursing, almost without pause, since she was 16” (83).  I have been parenting four children continuously over the last 20 years and know how consuming that role has been.  I cannot imagine twenty years pregnant or nursing and parenting (although many of her children did not survive into late childhood, which brought its own burden of grief).

One of my favorite sections of Jane’s life, although not necessarily of Lepore’s story, was when Benjamin was in Europe and Jane was in Boston as the early events of what became the American Revolution unfolded.  Benjamin relied on Jane’s honest insights and valued her view of the situation and the players.  Jane seemed to enjoy the personal dramas connected to the political drama.  This section of Lepore’s story, however, is one area in which she struggled to keep the “master narrative” of Benjamin and the Revolution from overwhelming Jane’s story.

Lepore is at her finest when she introduces Jane’s Book of Ages and contextualizes Jane’s decision to write the book, her choice of the name, and the content of the entries.  Jane’s children are born and die soon after, but she does not write of her feelings.  Lepore tries to put us in the mindset of the age, however, with sermons, especially that of Benjamin Colman on the death of his daughter.  Lepore closes that chapter with this:

“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance.  Write this for a memoriall in a booke.  She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones.  Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together.  The remains of her remains.  The Book of Ages was her archive.  Kiss this paper.  Behold the historian.”

This is why this book was a National Book Award Finalist.  Lepore rescues Jane, but not as an oddity of history, a side note to the read story.  In her skillful hands, Jane’s story becomes crucial to a complete story of the age.  Without Jane, Benjamin Franklin’s story has a gaping hole.  Lepore tells Jane’s story for a popular audience, but with the tools and the wide perspective of a trained academic historian.  She reveals just enough of both to make Book of Ages more than a biography of one woman, or the story of women in this era, or even the people of Boston and New England in this era.  Jane Franklin’s story touches our stories and Lepore’s goal to bring her out from the shadows of a privileged-white-male-driven narrative touches a democratic impulse of our era. (On a side note, Lepore’s chapter on the views of proper history in the eighteenth century and the role of novels in telling the “history” of women and underprivileged peoples, in which Jane Austen has a cameo appearance, is worth a read on its own–“Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant”).

I am not an American historian nor particularly interested in early American history, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, thanks to Lepore’s storytelling and historical craft, I will not forget Jane Franklin or the women whose stories were intertwined with hers.

Finished 6/3/15

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies–Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

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As a HUGE fan of Pride and Prejudice, I was intrigued by the premise, but had to fight my annoyance at the fact that Grahame-Smith had been handed an idea and played cut and paste with some zombie bits to create this pretty popular variation.

I won’t lie.  This annoyance resurfaced at moments throughout the novel.  Until I hit this exchange during the infamous visit to Pemberley with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner:

“She remembered the lead ammunition in her pocket and offered it to him.  ‘Your balls, Mr. Darcy?’  He reached out and closed her hand around them, and offered, ‘They belong to you, Miss Bennet.”

How could I not be seduced by such open mockery of the beloved love story?  This seduction was sealed in the Reader’s Discussion Guide, in which question #7 reads: “Does Mrs. Bennet have a single redeeming quality?”  

Grahame-Smith leaves intact entire beloved paragraphs, but his Bennet girls are zombie killers who hone their fighting skills rather than embroidery and piano.  Instead of being confined to Longbourn, they have traveled to China to study with a martial arts master.  When Mr. Darcy first proposes, Elizabeth Bennet smashes his head into the mantel rather than eviscerating him with her tongue.  This was not appealing to me, but it reeled in my pre-teen son, who would not have touched Pride and Prejudice with a ten-foot pole had it not included zombies.  In the end, many readers may be left with the last discussion guide question, “Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?”

Finished 11/12/13

 

Pemberley to Waterloo: Georgiana Darcy’s Diary Vol. 2–Anna Elliott

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I have read these chronicles from Anna Elliott completely out of order, but that was part of the appeal.  I do not know if I would have had as much patience with Kitty Bennet’s silliness otherwise:)

Volume 2 of Elliott’s Pride and Prejudice continuation takes Georgiana and Kitty from the balls and daily concerns of England and the life of the elite to Brussels and the horrors of Waterloo.  Elizabeth gives birth to she and Darcy’s first child and Caroline Bingley finds love, and some humanity.  

I recommend the three volumes as a unit if you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.  This volume is a particularly quick read.

Finished 8/6/13

Georgiana Darcy’s Diary: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Continued–Anna Elliott (eBook)

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Ok, so I’m lost in Jane Austen’s England.  Again.  For me it’s like eating a whole batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, but without the saddlebags afterwards.

After reading volume three of Anna Elliott’s Jane Austen continuation, I checked her website and saw that volume one is available for free from your favorite eBook retailer, so I headed to Amazon (like getting a spoon out of the drawer) and downloaded.

What a treat.  In volume one, Elliott focuses on Georgiana Darcy, but the fun comes with Anna de Bourgh, whom Georgiana makes her own project.  This plot device echoes that of Kitty making Mary her project in volume three, but it was still fun to see this almost non-existent character fleshed out and given her own story line.  There was also a fun twist with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Caroline Bingley, two women Austen fans love to dislike.

This diary is another quick read in diary form.  There are a few moments of awkward prose when Georgiana is trying to justify describing in her diary people she obviously knows and would have discussed previously in her diary, but those moments pass quickly.

Finished 8/5/13

Kitty Bennet’s Diary–Anna Elliott

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This is the third in a series of Pride and Prejudice Chronicles.  In the first two Kitty Bennet is engaged in silly and scandalous behavior, engaged to John Ayres, whose prospects are okay, but not wonderful and with whom she is in friendship, but not love; then drawn into a whirlwind flirtation with a cad and off to Brussels nursing the wounded of Waterloo in atonement.

The Kitty of this volume is still lively and prone to laughter with children, but more serious with adults and much more likable than the Kitty of Pride and Prejudice.  She has learned to moderate her behavior and, through the course of the diary, describes her efforts to moderate her tongue.  She has seen a bigger life than that of Meryton and her small social circle and become a woman rather than a silly girl.

She and Mary are in London staying with their Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.  Georgiana and Edward Fitzwilliam are also in town and a very pregnant Jane comes to stay with her young daughter, Amelia, under mysterious circumstances.  Unraveling these circumstances, seeing her through to safe delivery of her child, trying to marry off Mary and then trying to keep her from ruin at the hands of the same cad who nearly ruined Kitty herself, all while falling in love with Lancelot Dalton occupy Kitty’s days and the accounts in her diary.

Anna Elliott’s continuation of Jane Austen’s characters is believable and enjoyable for a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice and her spotlight on the horrors and consequences of Waterloo as well as the social inequalities of London society are a welcome addition to the Austen scenery.

Finished 8/4/13