Book chat: ‘Jane Austen’s First Love’ by Syrie James

Jane Austen's First LoveRomantic, wistful and richly engrossing, fans of the beloved Miss Austen will delight in Syrie James’ well-researched, evocative story of the summer Jane is believed to have first fallen in love.

For a month in 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen is welcomed with her sister and brother to the vast, beautiful world of Goodnestone to celebrate the engagement of her brother, Edward, to Elizabeth Bridges, one of the young ladies of the estate. On their way to the celebration, their carriage meets with calamity — and Edward Taylor, a handsome and educated young man who lives nearby, comes to their rescue.

As their connection to the Bridges family brings them together, Jane and Edward pass many enjoyable weeks in each other’s company . . . much to the chagrin of the chaperones entrusted with making sure the reputations of both families remain unsullied. Though she knows a match between a wealthy heir and a reverend’s daughter is unlikely, their affection continues to grow — even as Jane meddles in the romances of those around her, causing disturbances and miscommunications.

Based on the scholarly belief that Jane did, in fact, meet one Edward Taylor through her brother — and snippets of letters in which she mentions both Him and Bifrons, Edward’s actual home — James has constructed a lively, entertaining tale of the man who may have stolen young Jane’s heart. With generous and creative nods to future characters (especially Emma Woodhouse, intrepid but misguided matchmaker), Jane Austen’s First Love is a treat for fans of the author and historical fiction alike.

The way Jane falls in love with Edward was sudden but believable — a feat not easily accomplished. As a young woman with little experience away from Steventon (and her mother’s grasp), Jane is enamored to be passing time as she chooses — and in the company of new, exciting, accomplished people. In addition to being handsome and well-traveled, Edward is adventurous and kind. Though a bit of a daredevil with a reputation to match, he has no trouble questioning the status quo: unique in a society that places propriety above all else.

Jane comes from different stock, of course. Visiting Goodnestone for her brother’s engagement celebration, she and Cassandra are under immense pressure to behave well and not present as “country folk.” At 15, Jane is too young to actually be “out” in society . . . but her mother relents for the special occasion, allowing her to participate in the many events and balls held in honor of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds (the sister of Edward Austen’s intended is also to marry). This new independence delights Jane — but it comes at a cost.

The early feelings of love and affection blossoming between Jane and Edward Taylor — the nerves; the excitement; the desperation to see each other again — are familiar to all of us. Indeed, it’s tough to read Jane Austen’s First Love and not feel transported back to your own first brush with romance. James does a remarkable job of drawing us into the easy banter and camaraderie the two share . . . but of course, we know the ending of the story.

Is it a spoiler to talk of the fate of a famous author who passed nearly 200 years ago? Austen fans know that, for all her exquisite explorations of the human heart, Jane herself never did marry — nor did her sister, Cassandra, after losing a fiance as a young woman. Jane passed at age 41 and left an enormous legacy that still has us talking, speculating and daydreaming centuries later.

Knowing the end of her romance with Edward Taylor even before it began did nothing to harm it; in fact, James beautifully demonstrates how reasonable it was that Jane could have fallen in love . . . but how, in the end, first loves are not always forever loves. What could have been a bittersweet ending was, instead, satisfying and realistic.

I loved my time at Goodnestone — and any time spent in the company of dear Jane is always well spent. Syrie James does a remarkable job of returning us to Regency England in the company of “characters” that actually feel like friends, with a story that felt both familiar and fresh. Jane Austen’s First Love will be a welcome addition to the shelves of Janeites everywhere — and those interested in a good love story will rejoice in it, too.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Paperback copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘Longbourn,’ ‘Dressmaker’

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
Source: Borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Audio disc 5 (of 11?)

Dull. There’s just no other way for me to describe my experience with this one. I went into it with high hopes, expecting a cross between Pride & Prejudice and “Downton Abbey,” and I suppose that’s what I got . . . but I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm for Longbourn.

I didn’t need a damp-shirted Darcy skipping between the pages or anything, but the lack of page time for the Bennets was disappointing. Putting that aside, I just wasn’t interested in housemaid Sarah, the mysterious James or the formidable Mrs. Hill. If I’d stuck it out a little longer, I may have been rewarded with a wee bit of romance . . . but when I found my mind drifting repeatedly while listening to the audio book, I knew it was time to cave.

Sorry, Longbourn; I barely knew ye, but I didn’t like what I knew.

Other thoughts:
Dear Author

Dressmaker Khair The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Source: Borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Audio disc 3 (of 7?)

Another doomed audio! Non-fiction centering on a brave, entrepreneurial woman in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Afghanistan, I thought this one would be an interesting and inspiring read (listen?) last fall.

Unfortunately, I never emotionally connected with the principle players — and the audio book’s narrator had a distracting, WASP-ish accent that didn’t mesh at all with the strong-willed women she described. I might have enjoyed this one better in print, but I doubt I’ll take that chance.

Other thoughts:
Booking Mama
Reading on a Rainy Day

Book review: ‘Compulsively Mr. Darcy’ by Nina Benneton

Doctor Elizabeth Bennet is used to dealing with ill, poverty-stricken patients in Vietnam, where she divides her time between treating the sick and helping her sister, Jane, at a nearby orphanage. But she’s not accustomed to dealing with handsome, bristly men like William Darcy bossing her around as she tries to do her job — especially when that job means treating his best friend, Charles, as the pair arrive far from home.

Getting off on the wrong foot, Elizabeth’s unpleasant opinion of William is pretty steadfast. Her disinterest doesn’t really matter, though; she’s convinced Charles and William are actually a clandestine couple (!) wanting to adopt a child, so it doesn’t matter that he’s ridiculously good-looking. And chivalrous. And actually very kindhearted. As the two get to know one another, inexperienced-in-love Elizabeth sees Darcy in a new light . . .

Nina Benneton’s Compulsively Mr. Darcy is a unique contribution to the expansive world of Jane Austen fiction, though I can’t say I was bowled over by this imagining. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, our favorite couple, are transported from Regency England to modern-day Vietnam, where Elizabeth’s job as a physician keeps her from dating much. She doesn’t expect to fall for Darcy, especially as her first meeting with him goes so poorly, but Austen fanatics know there can only be one outcome for this tale of — ahem — pride and prejudice.

First, the good: I liked how Benneton translated Darcy’s steadfast nature and strict attention to detail into an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It makes sense, really, and wasn’t overdone. Readers aren’t subjected to Darcy washing his hands under burning-hot water 45 times a day or checking and re-checking locks. We’re aware of his OCD, of course, but Benneton used a light touch to portray that very human, fallible part of Darcy’s nature. I dug it.

The setting was amazing, too — I mean, how many novels have I read set in Vietnam? None, actually. The very British Darcy was an interesting contrast to Elizabeth, an earthy and low-maintenance American, and I could see how they balanced each other. While Darcy was pacing around, dealing with quirky relatives and a high-powered job, Elizabeth was helping her Korean patients and trying to ignore her attraction to Darcy. It was amusing.

At first, anyway. For all Benneton’s assertions that Elizabeth is an intelligent, independent woman — a doctor, for cryin’ out loud — she becomes a complete idiot around (and about) Darcy. I know what you’re thinking: when we fall in love for the first time, as Elizabeth does, what woman doesn’t temporarily lose her common sense? And I would agree with you, friends. We often do become morons. But not in the obvious, ridiculous ways Elizabeth does. I was riding the Compulsively Mr. Darcy train until she began griping to Jane, her sweet sister, about how Darcy didn’t want to sleep with her after “seriously dating for days.” Yes: days. Virginal Elizabeth, so nervous and apprehensive about sex after some weird incident in her youth, can’t understand why the serious, analytical Darcy doesn’t want to hop into the sack immediately.

And okay, this is romance. I get it. But it just didn’t jive with me — it felt too forced, too unreal. I’m no prude, but I had a hard time taking Elizabeth seriously after she made so many awkward moves. To me, her behavior just wasn’t realistic — and I couldn’t relate to her much after she went so stark-raving crazy. The decisions she makes after they’ve been “dating” (mind you, he’s only in Vietnam temporarily — on a half-“vacation”) for mere days seemed ridiculous.

But was this book entertaining? Yes. I read it quickly, enjoying Benneton’s modern interpretation of Darcy and Elizabeth’s quirks. Nothing here rocked my world, but it was a pleasant diversion and an interesting addition to the Austen fiction canon. The familiar cast is well represented, including George Wickham (the cad!) and the annoying Bill Collins, and I liked finding their cameos in the fast-paced plot.

While cheesy lines akin to “My love, you are the very air I breathe” prompted eye-rolling, Compulsively Mr. Darcy is still a reasonably fun novel that may appeal to die-hard Austen fans wanting to reconnect with our favorite couple in a different place and time. Would I recommend it? Not over many other Pride and Prejudice-inspired books I’ve read, especially Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell. But give it a try for something a little different.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402262493 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Pemberley Ranch’ by Jack Caldwell

On a random weekday, I recently finished a young adult book and scanned my bookshelves for something a little different. While I love my chick lit and teen reads, a girl can’t survive on those genres alone. I wanted some intrigue. A little mystery, perhaps.

And that’s why I love having a bookcase that sags beneath its weight in paperbacks. Approximately ten billion novels await my perusal, and I adore being a flippant, unpredictable reader. It’s fun to flit from modern New York City to the streets of London and back again, and this time — this time — I was ready to embark on an epic journey to post Civil War-era Texas. And Jack Caldwell was channeling my beloved Jane Austen.

Before you scramble away regarding a Pride and Prejudice removed from Regency England, let me say this: I went into Pemberley Ranch expecting a pleasant — if campy — read, and I couldn’t have been more surprised by what I found in Caldwell’s incarnation of a classic story.

This book was so much fun.

Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet — famed heroine; straight talker; owner of “fine eyes” — is now Beth Bennet, a farmer’s daughter in Rosings, Texas. The Bennets have relocated from Ohio to Confederate Texas just after the war, and the family is still smarting from losing their beloved son and brother, Samuel, during the battles that polarized our nation. Beth now spends her days with her sisters and opinionated mother, Fanny, never dreaming that the sights of nearby rancher William Darcy — a wealthy, handsome former Confederate fighter — are fixed on her . . . especially when she does nothing more than insult his religious background and role in the war that claimed her brother’s life.

But Beth is wrong about Darcy — isn’t she? He isn’t the proud, arrogant “half-breed” that townsfolk are claiming. He’s of Native American background, sure, but that doesn’t mean he’s beneath some folks — and certainly not Catherine Burroughs, his cruel and controlling cousin. Cate would like nothing more than to unite the land that once belonged to their ancestors, but Darcy isn’t interested in a truce. And when Rosings’ residents begin facing trouble at the hands of George Whitehead, a charismatic but dangerous carpetbagger, everyone must choose which side they’re on.

So I’ve read lots of Austen fiction, and my love for our lady J is known far and wide. I can be a hard sell when it comes to modern (or historical) retellings of my favorite stories, and I know some purists frown upon “spin-offs” stemming from Austen’s original works. I’m not one of those readers, obviously; any additional time I can spend with the dashing Mr. Darcy is all right by me. But even I, a relatively adventurous reader, wasn’t so sure about this premise.

It just sounded so . . . silly. Over the top. Ridiculous, even. And I’m only admitting that in the interest of full disclosure, friends, because I absolutely loved this book. It was romantic, thrilling, adventurous; the plot was tight and interesting, and the whole novel richly atmospheric. I felt as thought I’d stepped back in time to ride sidesaddle through Darcy’s ranch, and I completely bought into the idea that these characters — these friends — to whom I’m tremendously attached could be transported to a different time, a different place, and have the story still work.

And work it did. Though I missed the prim-and-proper British manners that are so vital to Austen’s work, America in the 1800s wasn’t so grossly different from England. I mean, ladies weren’t permitted to hold court with a young man unchaperoned. And if you think you’re going to run off with a young woman without her father’s approval, son? Think again. There are right ways to do things and wrong ways to do things, and Caldwell knows that. Protocol in Texas isn’t quite the same as in Longbourn, but it’s not dissimilar, either.

Darcy is still a proud, upstanding citizen; Beth is still a hard-headed young woman who refuses to bend to society’s — or her parents’ — wishes. Though Caldwell manipulates the familiar plot in a new way, the spirit of our beloved characters is the same. And that’s what won me over most: the push-and-pull, will-they-or-won’t-they vibe we get from our leads is still present — but not the complete focus.

This isn’t a romance — not in a traditional sense. There’s no bodice-ripping here, friends, and very little in the way of uncouth behavior. Pemberley Ranch’s main focus is really on the Civil War and its aftershocks, bringing the discord between Beth and Darcy to this one salient point: on which side do you fall? And at one point do you let the past go?

Rich in historical detail and high on intrigue, tension and adventure, Pemberley Ranch is a spirited and fun addition to the Austen fiction oeuvre I love so dearly. Gobbled up over just a few nights, I was dying to learn what would become of my two favorite families and enjoyed seeing allusions to Pride and Prejudice even as Caldwell took the tale in new directions. A worthwhile, fun book, and one I heartily recommend to Austen fans and historical fiction lovers alike.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402241283 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Diary of an Eccentric

Book review: ‘The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice’ by Abigail Reynolds

For marine biologist Cassie Boulton, summers spent in Woods Hole, Massachusetts are reserved for study, experiments and reflection. She enjoys days with friend Erin, a fellow researcher, and chooses to focus on her work and opportunities brought about by all the concrete, tangible data before her.

Enter S. Calder Westing III, the wealthy son of a politician who spends summers with his buddy Scott lounging about in Woods Hole. Scott and Erin meet and hit it off, thereby introducing Calder and Cassie — and their feelings? Not quite so romantic. Or mutual. Over the course of an awkward lunch, Cassie’s first impressions of Calder are anything but flattering. Calder’s mannerisms are decidedly Darcy-like: aloof, arrogant, unfeeling and argumentative. And that’s being kind.

Abigail Reynolds’ The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice, tagged as a modern love story “with a Jane Austen twist,” is a contemporary romance with overtones of the Austen we know and love. Cassie and Calder have the push-and-pull, love/hate thing down pat — until suddenly, almost out of nowhere, they’re staring dreamily into each other’s eyes. And sharing a steamy evening in the water.

That didn’t bother me. As a whole, I’m a huge fan of the “You’re a jerk but, OMG — you’re smokin’ hot” plot trope. Generally speaking, that makes for some good times. But here? I’ve discovered why contemporary romance typically doesn’t work for me: I’m all about wishes. And daydreams. And build-up. And fantasy. When Things Really Begin To Happen — and y’all know what I’m saying — I suddenly lose interest. Like a lusty teenage boy only after “one thing,” I’m all hot and bothered and into this story until I get what I want. And then? I’m ready to move on.

Such is the case with The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice. I was super into the plot as Cassie and Calder met and tried to avoid one another, enjoying all the Austen-like twists that were similar enough to our dear Jane to be interesting but, importantly, different enough to keep my attention. But once the sizzle ratcheted up and “passions were consummated,” if you will (and that happens frequently), my ambivalence took over.

There’s plenty of backstory revolving around Cassie’s secret past and the objections of Calder’s family to his new love, all of which were fairly predictable but not unenjoyable. A blue blood to the core, there was no way Calder’s WASP-y crew was going to accept someone like Cassie — brought up from nothing and with more than her share of secrets. Calder’s family wants him to embrace politics, just like they did. He has other ideas, of course, and that’s where much of the novel’s tension in the latter half of the novel stems from.

I enjoyed the story for what it was: a contemporary tale of love, family and making one’s own way in the world. The Massachusetts setting and Cassie’s unconventional job elevated this one beyond the typical girl-works-in-publishing, girl-is-a-teacher stories with which I’m well acquainted, and I definitely appreciated that. While some of the dialogue felt stilted, I still liked the witty Darcy-and-Elizabeth-like banter flowing between our two leads. Fans of modern love stories and contemporary romance probably will, too.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402237324 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Austenland’ by Shannon Hale

In the English countryside is a retreat called Pembrook Park — an estate, really, which caters to visitors looking for a respite from modern living and a chance to experience the flavors, sensations and propriety of Regency England. Pembrook Park boasts its very own members of the British upperclass, and these actors traipse about the property speaking in elevated tones and adhering to a strict sense of manners that any of us living in 2010 would absorb with befuddled expressions. 

And that’s where Jane Hayes arrives, is newly christened “Miss Erstwhile” and given a room on the estate populated by gentlemen in breeches and ladies in flowing gowns. This English vacation, a gift from her recently-deceased great aunt, is an attempt for Jane to finally rid herself of the pesky Regency fantasties that have been plaguing her. An avid Austen fan, Jane wonders if her daydreams about Pride & Prejudice and its noble, brooding hero Mr. Darcy have created a firm wedge between her reality as a modern, single woman working as a graphic designer in New York city and a fantasy where someone like Darcy could exist. And, you know, sweep her off her feet. 

But things in Shannon Hale’s Austenland are rarely what they seem. At Pembrook Park are two gentlemen — Colonel Andrews, a sort of Charles Bingley, and Mr. Nobley, a frustrating man with decidedly Darcy tendencies — and Jane isn’t sure what to make of either of them. Other female guests share her time with the men and all seem to buy into the “fantasy” of life at Pembrook Park. Each is given a role to play and all are expected to adhere closely to the ettiquette of the time period, so modern conveniences like cell phones, e-mail and television? No way. Ladies could not be seen in the company of gentlemen while unattended, were expected to read and play whist in the evenings, etc. 

Jane initially struggles with the rules, as anyone would, but eventually decides to throw herself whole-heartedly into her time at Pembrook Park for the three weeks in which she’ll be present. Over time, she must come to grips with her own romantic past and decide what she’s truly looking for in her future. And as she spends more and more time as Miss Erstwhile, what will it be like to return to her identity as plain ol’ Jane Hayes when the adventure is over? 

Austenland is a novel which has, I know, stirred up controversy amongst the Jane Austen fan set, but I can say firmly that I really enjoyed this book for what it was: a fun, light and pleasant look at a woman who adores our Austen as much as we do. In a way, it really felt like an homage to Pride & Prejudice and our dear Darcy — as portrayed by Colin Firth in the film version, natch — and Hale obviously shares our passion for all things Jane. 

Did this book change my life? No. But I didn’t expect it to realign my thinking or shake up my world. At less than 200 pages, we go on a journey with Jane and watch as she unravels the mistakes she’s made in the past in order to jump more fully into the future. Some of that requires letting go — a tough lesson for anyone. And I was right there with her. 

Austenland appealed to me in the same way that Laurie Viera Rigler’s excellent Confessions Of A Jane Austen Addict and Rude Awakenings Of A Jane Austen Addict did — Hale’s story is a modern take on classic themes and characters, and a glimpse into a modern woman’s confusion and befuddlement with the traditions of the past. As someone who clearly loves her Austen, when haven’t I fantasized about donning a gorgeous gown of fine silk and arriving on the arm of a handsome Brit at an elegant ball? (Answer: pretty frequently.) 

There’s a reason Jane Austen still inspires countless novels, film adaptations, sequels, parallel stories and fan tributes — the latter of which I really consider Austenland to be. Because Jane is brilliant. And any book that helps us remember how incredible she is works for me. 

If you’re an Austen purist, you might scoff at the light examination of themes and contrivances in her books — and wonder if Hale is spending too much time looking at Regency England with modern eyes, something which really can’t be done. But if you’re someone who’s fantasized about your own Darcy and wonder what it would really be like to wander through an English garden thinking of all the passionate restraint of the time period, Austenland might just be your book. And that ending

4 out of 5! 

ISBN: 1596912863 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

Book review: ‘Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man In The World’ by Abigail Reynolds

What if Elizabeth had accepted Mr. Darcy the first time he asked?

Those of us familiar with Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice — which, if you’re even reading this, is probably most of us — know that Fitzwilliam Darcy popped the question to a flabbergasted Elizabeth Bennet long before she actually accepted, forcing Elizabeth to launch into her famous diatribe about Darcy being “the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” (Yikes. What a shut-down.)

Because Darcy? He was proud. Arrogant. Disdainful of Elizabeth’s family and “low connections.” And yet there was something about her — something spirited — that got him to cast aside his reservations and actually drop to one knee.

Or, in this case, plant a giant kiss on her.

While reading a novel like Abigail Reynolds’ Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man In The World, a variation on Pride & Prejudice, we have to remember what life was like in Regency England — decidedly straight-laced. After Darcy offers for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and assumes she’ll be overjoyed at the proposal, he leans forward to kiss her. But his belief that they’re alone while walking is quickly voided when Colonel Fitzwilliam stumbles across the pair. Shocked and horrified that she has now been “compromised” — and knowing there’s no way she can walk away from Darcy’s unbelievable offer of marriage now — Elizabeth stays mum as she is congratulated by her acquaintances and Darcy formally asks Mr. Bennet for permission to wed his second-eldest daughter.

Can you imagine? You’re caught in a man’s arms and suddenly you’re damaged goods — destined to bring shame and poverty upon your family because of one small, unexpected smooch. Let’s just say I’m glad it’s not 1815.

But I digress.

Reynolds’ Darcy is a familiar one: haughty and in control, but his unexpected tenderness and obvious infatuation with Elizabeth — though she most definitely did not return his sentiments — was very different. I enjoyed this novel from start to finish, absolutely loving the push-and-pull between our principle characters. Reynolds does an impeccable job of keeping us firmly rooted at the Pemberley we know and love while still allowing for some change. Familiar characters enter the landscape — like the devious George Wickham, a man for whom I must admit to have a certain soft spot (I know, I know) — and Austen’s plot points are honored, though Reynolds does take us in some new directions. And some of those steamy scenes would have brought a decided blush to Miss Austen’s cheeks.

The discourse between Elizabeth and Darcy was funny and tender — and, dare I say it, they bantered. Really bantered. So many recent spin-offs or variations of Pride & Prejudice I’ve read, like Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, feature our beloved characters as mere shells of who they used to be. Reynolds’ Elizabeth is still spirited and independent, afraid of Darcy though she can’t quite put her finger on why. The evolution of their relationship was believable and, though I knew that they would have to grow to love each other (right?), there was still a little shadow across my brow when I wondered how the couple would finally set aside their — ahem — pride and prejudice to accept one another . . . faults and all.

After reading a page or two here and there for a few days, when I finally sat down to devote my full attention to this novel? I whipped through it in a few hours. And what a diverting few hours they were! Fans of Austen and our beloved Darcy and Elizabeth won’t find much fault with this novel, though I have to admit to getting a little weary of the fact that they were so often at cross-hairs. But that’s just part of the fun, right? If you love Austen fiction, don’t hesitate to pick this one up.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 140222947X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher