Book review: ‘Searching For Pemberley’ by Mary Lydon Simonsen

Following the end of World War II, young American Maggie Joyce is living and working in war-torn London. Desperate not to return home to the tiny Pennsylvania town where her family lives quietly and uninterestingly, Maggie has made her way through Europe and settled in England, where she makes new friends through her work with the American government’s administrative offices abroad and visits the countryside.

It’s on one of these outings to a historic home in Derbyshire that Maggie first hears a story behind a story: that of the “real” Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, beloved characters from Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride & Prejudice. Desperate for something to distract her from the trials of the post-war world, Maggie goes off in search of Beth and Jack Crowell, an English couple who claim to have ties to Elizabeth and Darcy — or Elizabeth Garrison and William Lacey, as they were so called. Beth shares letters and diary entries with Maggie, somehow desiring to prove what they claim is real, and Maggie eagerly devours the information — all while entertaining the interests of the Crowells’ son, Michael. A hot-and-cold romance with an American pilot adds another dimension to Maggie’s life, simultaneously delighting and frustrating her.

And me, as a reader.

My desire to love Mary Lydon Simonsen’s Searching For Pemberley was palpable, but I never quite got there. To start, I realized something dangerous about the book almost right away:

I don’t want to believe Jane Austen’s characters were based on real people.

Isn’t part of the intrigue of Austen that this clever, intelligent and witty woman wrote some of the most lasting novels in the English language — books that are still read and loved more than one hundred and fifty years later — and never married herself? That she lived with her sister and mother until her untimely death, and that her manuscripts were largely crafted in her very own room? That we have no substantial evidence of any great romance in her life, save one hastily accepted (and then rejected) marriage proposal in her twenties? That she knew so much of love, and could articulate it so well, but we can never quite know what was in her own heart?

I’ll tell you, it is for me — and reading a book that suggests, but not in an unkind way, that Austen “borrowed” the stories of a real family, the Garrisons, and made both their follies and triumphs public actually hurt me. Hurt me. Though the romantic in me wants to believe Darcy was a real person, when I actually sit down and think about my fantastic Miss Austen merely lifting a true story and changing it slightly, I’m bothered. Just the suggestion bothers me.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Searching For Pemberley functions, for me, far better as historical fiction than any sort of romance. As a character, I found Maggie flat and unemotional — and Simonsen’s writing, while skilled, lacks the nuance I would expect from a love story. The novel is full of telling and less showing, and if I were to play a drinking game whereby I took a shot every time a character launched into a monologue? I’d be sloshed by the 100-page mark. Or sooner. I can’t speak to the “dialogue” because there really wasn’t any — it was mostly Jack launching into a story about his romance with Beth, or Rob talking about the horrendous things he saw during World War II. As a reader, I didn’t feel engaged with what was happening — it was like putting on a documentary and sitting back with a cup of coffee. I wasn’t in the action.

The novel functions better as a look at post-war life in England than as an Austen story, even, and I hate to say that . . . but it’s true. I was most interested in the stories of Beth and Jack Crowell because, unlike William and Elizabeth’s tale, they weren’t ones I already knew. And while I wanted to cheer for Maggie and hoped she would find true love, I simply found it difficult to care about her. For as reserved and unemotional as she was and seemed, I reserved my own emotional attachment.

But there is plenty going on — and plenty to discuss. Simonsen certainly knows her subject, and her details about life during the world wars are specific and heartbreaking. For readers interested in World War II and life for the citizens it most affected, both in the fighting and at home, there’s plenty of material to process and digest. And for literature fans who don’t shudder at the thought that Elizabeth and Darcy really were two proud, prejudiced people? This one might make a nice addition to your Austen library.

(My lukewarm opinion on this novel seems to be in the minority, so feel free to check out positive reviews by Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit or on Amazon.)

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402224397 ♥ Purchase from AmazonBook Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘According To Jane’ by Marilyn Brant

according_to_janeEllie Barnett is 15 years old the first time she hears it: the clipped, unmistakable and disapproving voice of Jane Austen, famous authoress and, apparently, Ellie’s new mentor. Deep within her subconscious, Jane comes to be a sort of friend and guardian angel, helping Ellie navigate the turbulent years of her adolescence — particularly where Sam Blaine, the irresistably cute high school rebel, is concerned.

As the years go by and Ellie’s fragile heart is bruised time and again in her pursuit of true love, the constancy of Jane’s advice allows Ellie to learn from her mistakes and see each man for who he truly is. There are the Wickhams, like Sam, and the Bingleys, like classmate Jason. But where’s the one man Ellie wants to find more than anyone — her own Darcy? With Jane’s assistance, our heroine comes to find he may be in a very unlikely place indeed.

There’s much to like about Marilyn Brant’s According To Jane, a fresh and fun contemporary story with plenty of allusions to one of my favorite British authors. The idea of Jane as a sort of spirit guide for a modern woman was compelling enough for me to rush out and buy this one myself, and I definitely enjoyed reading the novel on long recent plane rides. More than anything, Brant’s novel felt realistic. Ellie, like many women in their mid-twenties and -thirties, is craving that One True Love — and relies upon her friends and family to help her discover him. Jane’s irreverent voice comes through in the book, guiding Ellie according to her personal morals. While some of her views are antiquated, particularly where “courtship” are concerned, most of Jane’s advice still rings true in the modern world!

I loved Ellie’s relationship with her older sister Diana, a one-time rebellious teen who taunted Ellie but comes to appreciate her little sister more and more as they reach adulthood. Their dynamic felt very honest! The book’s dialogue was believable, too — not stilted and awkward, like someone writing a parody of a “conversation.” The book did feature plenty of intimate scenes that really caught me off guard, to be honest — but not necessarily in a bad way. Those, too, felt realistic . . . and cringe-worthy. Ellie’s coming-of-age story — which, at its heart, is what According To Jane is — will probably ring true for many women. Her misadventures in dating definitely sounded familiar . . . unfortunately!

My only gripe with the novel was the “explanation” that accompanied Jane’s arrival in Ellie’s life. In some ways, I may have honestly preferred that no particular reason be given at all! It just felt random and at odds with my own perception of Jane, I guess, but that’s a personal feeling. Others don’t seem to have been as bothered by that as I am! And while I saw the ending coming about four hundred miles away, that didn’t keep me from enjoying it immensely when we got there.

A fun, light-hearted coming-of-age novel lovers of Jane Austen will appreciate — and women’s fiction readers will enjoy. Now, if only I had my own Jane to help me spot all the Wickhams in the world . . .

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0758234619 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Darcy And Anne’ by Judith Brocklehurst

darcy_and_anneAfter Fitzwilliam Darcy failed to offer for his cousin’s hand in marriage — and went ahead and fell in love with Elizabeth Bennet, that little nobody! — Lady Catherine de Bourgh is less than thrilled with her only daughter Anne’s prospects for betrothal. A strongly-worded letter is sent to Darcy from Rosings, where the de Bourgh women reside, demanding that he come up with some sort of alternate solution for Anne, whom he’s treated shamefully.

Lady Catherine and Anne set out for Pemberley determined to find a husband for the heiress, who has long lived in poor health under the thumb of her domineering, critical only parent. Still mourning for her beloved father, who died when she was a child, Anne holds no ill feelings for Darcy — but desperately does want to find a place in a world of her own creation.

When Anne and Lady Catherine are separated on their way visit Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, Anne begins to see — perhaps for the first time — that her isolated, constricted world at Rosings has made her a true prisoner in her own life. And something must be done about it — especially when she meets Edmund Caldwell, the soft-spoken but charming man who shares her dreams and temperament. But has no title — or anything else — to offer an heiress.

Judith Brocklehurst’s take on what happens after Jane Austen’s beloved Pride & Prejudice has finished is a fun, truly fresh take on many of Austen’s beloved characters. For the first time, Anne is seen not as the dowdy, quiet and forgettable cousin to whom Darcy could never imagine getting engaged — Anne de Bourgh is dynamic, fun, and a writer with aspirations to have work read by the masses (like Austen herself?).

Brocklehurst’s tone seemed to line up perfectly with Austen’s — something I haven’t encountered quite so much in other novels based on her work. Darcy And Anne is both readable and likeable, and at just over 200 pages, I easily gobbled this one up. I loved reuniting with the Darcys — and seeing their family grow! — as Lady Catherine finally got some of her comeuppances. Anne was a warm and sympathetic character, and I loved getting to know her as she started out on her own path.

Austen fans will enjoy this “sequel” which stays true to Austen’s original characters, tone and intent — but adds an entertaining extra chapter to a timeless classic.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402224389 ♥ Purchase from Amazon
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Enthusiasm’ by Polly Shulman

enthusiasmJulie Lefkowitz knows where her allegience lies — and it’s all with Ashleigh Rossi, her childhood best friend and serious Enthusiast. Ashleigh’s whims change without warning and encompass her entire being, dragging Julie along as she suddenly develops an interest in insects, candy-making or King Arthur — and then some.

Usually glad to go along with Ash’s infectious, excited schemes, her latest is causing Julie to feel anxious — Ashleigh is now obsessed with Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice, Julie’s very own favorite book. And from the moment Ash appears at Julie’s wearing a long gown, speaking in Regency language and begging her to crash a “ball” at neighboring all-boys school Forefield Academy, Julie knows this is no ordinary Enthusiasm.

And it’s not, of course. At the dance they meet Ned Downing and Charles Grandison Parr, two “very suitable” young men who could very clearly resemble their own Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, respectively. But which gentleman will pair off with which young lady? Or are they totally immune to the girls’ charms?

I can’t believe I only discovered this book by browsing through a bargain bookshelf. It was absolutely, totally fun and adorable! That’s really the best way I can describe it. Was the romance a wee bit predictable? Yes. Were there times you wanted to punch Julie, our narrator, in the arm for being so obtuse? Definitely. Was it obvious that, in the tradition of Jane Austen, we would get our very own happy ending? Sure. But let me tell you, it didn’t really hurt this infectious story at all.

What really anchored the whole novel for me was the knowledge that we all have an Ashleigh — or that we’ve all been an Ashleigh. My friends and family have long teased me that I jump from one “obsession” to another, and I absolutely saw myself in Shulman’s whimsical character. Ashleigh’s friendship with Julie was so strong, as was their devotion to each other — and it was so refreshing to see a pair of friends who don’t turn on each other the moment a pimply teenage boy shows them an ounce of attention. Seriously, Ashleigh and Julie were Ashleigh-and-Julie, and I loved that.

The family dynamics here were really strong, too. Goodness knows I love to see a functioning, well-drawn and relatable family! While Julie’s parents are divorced and she divides her time between her mother’s home with an antiques store in front and her father’s place with her new stepmother Amy, the “Irresistable Accountant,” the book doesn’t fall into the mire of “where do I belong, what did I do wrong” that’s so completely played out. Both homes welcomed her, though Julie did occasionally struggle with being kind to Amy. Though I couldn’t exactly blame her . . . I’m sure I would have had a hard time always being nice to Amy, too.

Jane Austen fans will delight in seeing a young woman so engrossed with one of their own favorite novels, as will the many women who have looked for their own Mr. Darcy. Ashleigh’s Enthusiasm is totally contagious, and at just 208 pages, you can whip right through this one in a sitting or two. And I’m so glad I did!

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0142409359 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Book review: ‘Mr. Darcy, Vampyre’ by Amanda Grange

mr_darcy_vampyreFor Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the honeymoon period may be over — literally.

Following the exchanging of their marriage vows in England, Elizabeth and her beloved Darcy set out on their wedding tour, planning to take in the splendors of France and Italy. At first delighted at the prospect of traveling the continent, Elizabeth’s joy at becoming a new bride begins to diminish as Darcy begins acting strangely, turning a cold shoulder to her and refusing to visit her in the evenings. After a harrowing experience while visiting Darcy’s uncle in an old, crumbling castle, Elizabeth finds herself even more confused and fearful at the change in her husband’s demeanor. And things seem to go from bad to worse.

Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre is definitely a different take on much of the Austen fiction that picks up where Pride & Prejudice leaves us. The novel literally opens on Elizabeth and Darcy’s wedding day, giving us a peek at the happiness they both felt was initially promised. But the secrets between them threaten to destroy their relationship . . . mostly from the inside out.

Like Elizabeth, I often found myself with more questions than answers here. I spent the majority of the novel waiting for the shoe to drop, so to speak — waiting for something to happen. As a reader, we know something the new Mrs. Darcy does not . . . and all I wanted was for her to just discover that already. Despite its title, little mention is actually made of anyone’s vampyric tendencies, and I guess I’ve spent way too much time in the Twilight world . . . I just wasn’t that impressed. The story’s “villain” seemed to appear from nowhere, and I couldn’t really live in any sort of fear of him — he disappeared as quickly as he’d emerged. There was really little threat motivating the story and, quite honestly, I didn’t feel much of anything while reading.

That being said, there is an innately interesting plot going on here (I mean, c’mon. Darcy? A vampire?). I didn’t have any trouble reading the book, finishing it in just a few nights. It’s just that my mad dash to get done was motivated by the fact that I desperately wanted to see some vampire action going on, and I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. Still, Grange’s prose is interesting enough to propel the plot, and I enjoyed the descriptions of England, France and Italy in the early nineteenth century. Venice, in particular, was magical.

I’m a huge fan of Austen’s work and generally love fiction based upon her beloved novels. If you’re a Darcy fan or just find yourself roped in by the cover — I know I did! — I would still recommend checking out this latest edition to the Austen world. Finishing the book definitely made me want to re-read Pride & Prejudice, and Mr. Darcy, Vampyre seems true to the original plotline. Just don’t expect to, ahem, sink your teeth into it too quickly.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402236972 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Rude Awakenings Of A Jane Austen Addict’ by Laurie Viera Rigler

rude_awakeningsLife has gotten a little strange for Jane Mansfield: she’s woken up in a cramped apartment in Los Angeles, wearing frighteningly little clothing; her beloved maid Barnes is nowhere in sight; all sorts of strange appliances and glowing boxes are around her, producing very curious noises; and an incredibly good-looking, decidedly ungentleman-like man is tending to her monstrous headache, which he says is the result of whacking her head against the bottom of a pool.

Oh — and it’s 2009.

When Jane fell off her horse on her father’s estate in England, the year was 1813. Heartbroken and battling to get out from underneath her mother’s meddling thumb, Jane had wished for another life — a new chance in a new time. And after her nasty spill, her wish has been granted.

The modern era is a complete and total mystery to Jane, filled with cars, cell phones, iPods, the Internet, television and film adaptations of Jane Austen’s work on boxes with moving pictures (ooh, Colin Firth!). With the help of friends Paula, Anna and Wes, Courtney’s former friend and current ally, Jane-as-Courtney begins to piece together how in the world she may have come to find herself in L.A. — and in the body of blonde, petite assistant Courtney Stone, a woman whose problems, heartbreaks and indecisions Jane has now inherited.

This sequel to Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions Of A Jane Austen Addict follows Jane as her friends come to grips with her funny way of talking — Regency dialect, you know, just without the British accent — and her complete inability to understand any sort of technology. At first chalking up her confusion to the concussion she’s suffered, they slowly begin to realize that Courtney has changed. And it’s all thanks to Jane.

Though I enjoyed Confessions very much, I have to say that I loved this novel even more than Rigler’s debut. Her observations on modern relationships, technology and friendships were spot-on, and I absolutely loved discovering the things we take for granted anew through Jane’s eyes. Contraptions like cell phones and computers are alien to her, and the descriptions of them are often hilarious. How often do we stop and think how strange it is that we’re sitting in front of little glowing boxes right now, tapping out sequences of letters to pull up information from anywhere on the planet? Once Jane discovers the wonders of Google, there’s no turning back. It’s a magical feeling!

The development of Jane’s friendships with Paula and Anna was really fun, as were her interactions with philandering ex Frank and good friend Wes. The romance felt believable, and I thought her descriptions of modern courtship were particularly astute . . . and thought-provoking. Two of my favorite quotes from the book, which genuinely made me pause:

. . . While women value their so-called freedom, they are fearful of giving away too much too soon, thus obviating a man’s reasons for marrying. Which sounds like freedom for men and not for women, in my humble opinion. And which sounds like being ruined is almost as much a risk in this world as it is in mine.

To think I had believed, even for a moment, that he was about to offer me marriage, not a chance to bed him again and be his mistress who must still work and pay her own rent and can be thrown off without a moment’s notice unless perhaps he decides to make her an honest offer again. What a bargain.

So true, Jane — so true! Much of the book was really an examination of what it means to be a “free woman” — free from obligation, or responsibility, or want, or oppression. But, as evidenced above, Jane realizes that the freedom to make choices about love, family, friendship and careers in the twenty-first century doesn’t automatically equate to happiness.

Overall, an incredibly entertaining, interesting and fun look at our world through the eyes of a Regency woman, and a wonderful treat for Jane Austen fans. References to our favorite author abound, and a love of all things Austen — and Mr. Darcy — is just one of the many things Jane discovers she shares with Courtney. Now I want to go back and re-read Confessions, if only to spend more time with funny, perceptive Jane.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525950761 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Book review: ‘Me & Mr. Darcy’ by Alexandra Potter

me_mr_darcyFollowing a spate of terrible dates in her native New York, bookstore manager Emily Albright impulsively books a trip to England to spend the Christmas holidays on a “literature lover’s” tour of Jane Austen’s native land. With a copy of her beloved Pride & Prejudice, Emily hopes to find something to inspire her — and bring her a smidge closer to that elusive and dashing of all heroes, Mr. Darcy.

If only she knew how right she would be.

Everything about Alexandra Potter’s Me & Mr. Darcy appealed to me — the setting (oh, that English countryside!); the subject matter (a woman on an Austen quest? Yes, please!) and the hint that a great love story was to follow (Mr. Darcy had to appear in here somewhere). And while I did ultimately enjoy the book, I have to say that getting there was a little tedious.

Firstly, there wasn’t anything subtle about the novel — it’s a clear model of P&P if ever I’ve read one. And yes, that definitely makes for a predictable plot. But I tried to let go of that as much as I could and just enjoy the story . . . Emily is a cute, if flawed, main character. She’s certainly not putting on any airs. And her realizations about Mr. Darcy and the “pedestal” on which adoring women have placed him were interesting, if not totally original.

But something that continuously irked me was that, from the get-go, I realized our “American” narrator couldn’t possibly be American. (Indeed, Potter herself is British.) Phrases like someone “pulling a face” made me continuously question whether the plot included Emily actually turn into an Englishwoman, and these references were littered everywhere in the text. On some level, I’m fine with that — I’m not an American slang snob! But then Emily would sprinkle in phrases like “awesome” in the next breath, making me feel like the only possible response our American narrator could have to Mr. Darcy’s advances was something a California surfer would say. Really? And traditional British slang totally dumbfounded her. We all know what the “loo” is, don’t we?

But what I liked about the book was the burgeoning relationship with wry British journalist Spike, a man who takes the same tour as Emily at the command of his editor. Spike sets out to discover why Mr. Darcy ranks No. 1 on a survey of men British women would most like to date, and the continuing obsession with the literary lover is the subject of his editorial. While I thought Emily’s immediate dislike of Spike was totally unwarranted — and, dare I say it, prejudiced? — I did eventually enjoy watching their conversations change and lengthen. I hate to say it here, but I would have gladly taken more Spike over Potter’s version of brooding, moody Darcy. (I know — the audacity!)

Ultimately, not the most fascinating read — and definitely not my favorite work of Austen fiction. But if you’re someone who shares a love of Darcy and wants some cute scenes romping through the English countryside, it might be worth your time. That being said, I’ll say honestly that I hurried through several parts in an effort to just get done already. And that’s about the least “prejudiced” recommendation I can give!

2.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 034550254X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website