By Shannon Hale
Reviewed by Melissa
First, a confession. I have a crush on Colin Firth. And I know exactly when it started: the spring of 1996, when my mother-in-law gave me the six-videocasette collection of the A&E/BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. Much to my husband's amusement, I fell for Colin Firth-as-Mr. Darcy, head over heels. (Close behind that was Jeremy Northam-as-Mr. Knightly, and Ciaran Hinds-as-Captain Wentworth, but they've stayed one-movie crushes. My crush on Colin Firth has expanded to include all the movies I have seen him in. And that is quite a few. But I digress.)
Why does this confession matter? Because Austenland, by Shannon Hale, was written for me. Well, not me in particular, but those like me. Those for whom Mr. Darcy is, and can only be, Colin Firth. Those for whom their love for Jane Austen's work is intertwined with their love for the movie productions of those works. And, so, Hale had me hooked from the first paragraph:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman inIt goes on that Jane has a secret: she watches the BBC Pride and Prejudice. But it's not just that she watches and enjoys it. No, she desires it; she desires Mr. Darcy, wants to find a man who will become Mr. Darcy. And this embarrasses her, so she hides the DVDs in a houseplant. Her Great-Aunt Carolyn discovers this and confronts Jane with it. "He's a devil, that Mr. Darcy. But you wouldn't hide him in a houseplant if you didn't have a guilty conscience. That tells me you're not idly daydreaming." She goes on, later, "Things aren't working out so well, and each time the men in your life disappoint, you let Mr. Darcy in a little bit more. Perhaps you've come to the point where you're so attached to the idea of that scoundrel, you won't be satisfied with anything less." So, when Great-Aunt Carolyn dies, she leaves Jane a vacation to Pembrook Park: a trip back in time to Regency England, where she can live out her obsession.
possession of a satisfying career and a fabulous hairdo must be in want of very
little, and Jane Hays, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to
have little to distress her. There was new husband, but those weren't necessary
anymore. There were boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of
mutual dissatisfaction -- well, that was the way of things, wasn't it?
To her credit, Hale doesn't have Jane jump right in to the action and go whole hog. Jane wavers on deciding whether or not to go (though there is really no question as to whether or not she will). And when she gets there, she has a hard time dealing with the whole acting-out-a-role thing. She is asked to change her name (she becomes Jane Erstwhile for the three weeks), encouraged to lie about her age (she doesn't, though a obviously fiftyish woman does, confessing her age in an aside to Jane: "And by the way, I'm twenty-two. I told Mrs. Wattlesbrook and now I'm telling you. I didn't forgo a new car and a month in Florence to be fifty again."), and given a whole set of Regency rules she's supposed to abide by (including the foregoing of all electronic devices). It's uncomfortable (and we're not just talking about the clothes), and she finds herself pining for reality.
From there, I'm going to let the plot summary go. There is nothing deep or revelatory, and it would ruin the point of the book -- since it is all about Jane trying to get rid of her Austen addiction -- to summarize it. What really makes it such an enjoyable journey is that Hale is a superb storyteller. She knows how to handle characters, to make you care about them and be interested in what happens to them. She keeps the plot moving, so there is really no opportunity to lose interest. And this book is hilarious (I don't remember Hale being so funny in her other books). My absolute favorite passage (which won't be nearly as funny out of context, but had me roaring when I read it):
There's also a great peripheral comic character (who Hale deftly takes out of center stage before she can become annoying) in Miss Charming (the aforementioned fiftyish woman), and her attempts to be English: "How do you do, Miss Erstwhile, what-what?" said Miss Charming, her tightened lips trembling with the effort of approximating a British accent. "Spit spot I hope, rather."
The quiet and cold washed over her, and she stood by his window,
waiting for a decision to bite her. In some tree, a bird croaked a suggestion.
Jane wished she spoke Bird. "What are you doing?"
"Ya!" said Jane, whirling around, her hands held up menacingly. It was Mr. Nobley with coat, hat and cane, watching her with wide eyes. Jane took several quick (but oh so casual) steps away from Martin's window.
"Um, did I just say, 'Ya'?"
"You just said 'Ya'," he confirmed. "If I am not mistaken, it was a
battle cry, warning that you were about to attack me."
"I, uh..." She stopped to laugh. "I wasn't aware until this precise and awkward moment that when startled in a strange place, my instincts would have me pretend to be a ninja."
And the romance, wow. Her leading men are fabulous. There's Martin the gardener, there's Mr. Nobley the Darcyesque, there's even a couple of throwaway men just for looks. And while it is almost ridiculously clean (no sex and very little swearing, which is really, considering today's society, remarkable; however, I felt the root beer was just a bit over the top), the book oozes with heat between Jane and her love interest(s). You can just feel the chemistry between them. In short, Hale writes sexual tension extremely well.
Even though it tends a bit toward the predictable side, you really do not see the ending coming (though I felt it was just is bit Bridget Jones-ish). And that makes it all the better when you get there.
So, pull up your beach chairs, ladies, and enjoy this gem. As Jane says, "I don't think I could explain it to a man. If you were a woman, all I'd have to say is 'Colin Firth in a wet shirt; and you'd say 'Ah.'"