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: ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_societyReading this stunning work of historical fiction, it’s easy to feel the sun warming the beaches of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France — but much harder to grab your heart back when you’ve finished spending time with your new friends Poignancy, Heartache, Gratitude and Stunning Prose. Basically, after you’ve finished reading Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The novel opens in 1946, just a few short years since the end of World War II and the ravaging of Europe by Hitler’s Third Reich. Much of London is still decimated — dilapidated buildings still stand, but spill their contents onto the streets by the River Thames. Author Juliet Ashton survived the difficult time in England through her writing — and helped others deal with the terror, confusion, pain and harshness of war through her columns in a London newspaper. Often humorous, Juliet’s musings were so popular in England that, after the end of the war, they were published — and sold quite well. Now riding high from the success of her book, Juliet is struggling to find a new subject on which to focus her literary pursuits . . . and is coming up empty.

Told entirely through a series of letters from a great variety of individuals, Guernsey is first and foremost Juliet’s story — but quickly shifts to encompass the lives of so many other exceptional people, too. As Juliet travels England on her book tour and laments her lack of inspiration, a letter from far away drops right into her lap. A man on the island of Guernsey has stumbled across a copy of book once having belonged to Juliet — before the contents of her home were ripped apart in a bomb blast years before. Somehow the book made it to the Channel Islands, still with Juliet’s inscription in the front — and has become a staple at the meetings of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a slightly underground organization developed on the island during the five years in which German troops occupied Guernsey, making its inhabitants captives.

What always stuns me about fantastic historical fiction — particularly those stories which bring life to the people affected and haunted by World War II, one of the greatest blights and tragedies in human history — is its ability to completely transport me to another time, a distant place — and display to me, in a very human way, the toll of war upon those who fight and those who stay. None of the characters in Guernsey were soldiers, but they all knew — and loved — soldiers. None had to pick up and bear arms, but they did bear the daily burdens of not knowing whether their loved ones were safe.

It’s impossible for me — a modern American woman — to begin to understand what it must have felt like, both here and abroad, during World War II. At many times while reading, tears welled in my eyes as characters wrote to Juliet about the Occupation: what they sacrificed, how they survived, the uncertainty which enveloped their entire lives. Not having enough food, or coal, or warm clothing; not having a bed or a roof over their head. Watching prisoners marching through their once-beautiful streets, so thin as to almost disappear. But reading a novel like this reminds me how important it is that though I cannot truly understand, I can try to: and that this period of history, however horrible, can’t be forgotten.

I don’t want to make Guernsey sound morose . . . because it’s quite the opposite, really. It’s a testament to the human spirit. Like other fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read from the time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, it’s as much about the unexpected kindnesses as it is about the tragedies . . . it’s about the resilience of the human spirit. It’s about being alive.

If I don’t keep myself in check, I’ll wind up writing a 20,000 word review of this one . . . so I’ll hit upon a few more key points before I let you go:

• Juliet. I loved her — and am pretty sure I would love to be her. She’s intelligent, beautiful, sincere, independent, kind, loving, witty — and a writer. She’s an unstoppable force of nature. Reading her often-hilarious, always sincere letters to her friend and editor Sidney Stark, Sophie, Dawsey and Amelia basically made me . . . want to be a better person.

• The love story. I won’t elaborate — I would never dream of ruining it for you! But it was romantic, sweeping, realistic — gorgeous. My heart swelled to bursting.

• Perspective. Reading this novel forced me to take all my “problems,” throw them into a balloon, fill it with air and then watch as it floated away, completely disappearing from sight. Not only was I entirely caught up in this story while reading, but know now that Juliet and the residents of Guernsey — and the realities of life in a very different, difficult time — will stay with me for days. How blessed am I, in 2009, to live in a world of freedom — and to have a life free of relatively free of hardship, pain or want?

• The writing. Oustanding. The novel was begun by Mary Ann Shaffer, who sadly passed away before its completion; it was then taken up by her niece Annie Barrows, who did a superb completing it. All of the voices blend together seamlessly and, though many of them are similar, each individual letter-writer has a style and tone all their own. There’s no such thing as a “background” character; every person tells a story and has a purpose. No words are minced or wasted. Flawless.

And how fortunate am I to have read this novel? If you have any hesitation about starting it or doubt the sincerity of my crazy high recommendation, I’ll share another quick story: in order to finish the novel this morning, I woke up at 7 a.m. I woke up early — before my alarm clock. I couldn’t bear the thought of going to work without knowing how everything turned out! So I threw a blanket over my head to block out the harsh reading light, made a tiny slit for my eyes to pass through and frantically flipped the pages until I was done. And then I sighed. With pure contentedness.

So you have your orders, friends — get a move on, now. Don’t let me see you dawdling!

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385340990 ♥ Purchase from AmazonOfficial Book Website
Copy received as a Christmas gift — last year! I’m so ashamed!

Book review: ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

book_thief One of the things I love best about reading is that moment you crack the spine of a novel and realize, without a doubt, that the literary adventure on which you’re about to embark will change your life — your entire view of the world. And for me, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is exactly one of those books.

Death tells the story of the book thief in question — Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in Molching, Germany during the onset of World War II. Nine-year-old Liesel arrives traumatized following the death of her younger brother and her forced separation from her father, taken away under suspicion of Communist leanings by the Hitler regime, and her mother, whom she sees for the last time stranded on a train platform.

Loud-mouthed and abrasive Rosa immediately sets to work straightening Liesel out, but Hans — or Papa — embraces the young girl, teaching her to read the beloved book she’s carried with her from her brother’s snow-covered grave. As Liesel battles nightmare after nightmare in her new bed in a new town, far from the only home she’s ever known, Hans patiently sits with her each evening, comforting her and playing his beloved accordion. A survivor of “the Great War,” or World War I, Hans has some of his own nightmares to face. And one of those Great War memories eventually comes back to meet him face to face — and ask for his assistance, and safety, during one of the most terrifying times in world history.

As she gets adjusted to her new life slowly, Liesel befriends the Steiners, the family next-door on Himmel Street. Young, ambitious and yellow-haired Rudy Steiner takes an immediate shine to Liesel and the two promptly become both inseparable friends and partners in crime. As Poland is invaded in 1939 and the war begins in earnest, Rudy and Liesel further descend into thievery. It starts with a few dozen apples with the other rebellious kids in the neighborhood — after all, everyone is hungry. Everyone. But Liesel is only interested in quenching her thirst for knowledge, eventually befriending the morose wife of the town mayor. Liesel visits Ilsa Hermann in her mansion on the hill, collecting the washing for her mother, and is able to pour through the thousands of titles in the Hermann library. The book thief is overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of the stories — and it’s these very stories that calm the terrified residents of Himmel Street as the war reaches home, sending them all into makeshift bomb shelters. And help them say goodbye to their loved ones.

It’s hard for me to even describe this book with any clarity, or string along some sentences to talk about how emotional I am after finishing it. Everything I think of seems inadequate — it can’t possibly do it justice. This is a story about love, fear, loss, death, life, family, friendship, evil and, ultimately, hope. The book is divided into several parts and, as mentioned, Death narrates the entire tale — talking about how haunted he/she is by humans, by their willingness to survive, by the way they somehow endure despite everything. Scenes I can’t imagine seeing — feelings I can’t imagine feeling — losses I can’t believe anyone could face. They’re all in The Book Thief, laid bare but told so poetically tears will spring to your eyes. I absolutely sympathized with Death, the one told by “the Boss” to gather up the souls of the dead and carry them from the wrecked, ruined bodies strewn across Dachau, and Stalingrad, and London.

Five hundred souls . . . I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.

I loved the fact that Death would foreshadow the entire story, giving us glimpses of an inevitable future as we read along. It didn’t bother me in the least and, when he explicitly tells us that he’s “ruining the ending” of the story just in the hopes of not catching us unaware, I actually appreciated that. I knew the outcome of the entire novel — knew, more likely than not, who would live and die — but that didn’t ruin it in the slightest for me. I was so emotional upon completing the novel, I was happy I didn’t have to be caught up in a terrible shock for the last 30 pages or so. Although plenty of surprises were still there, I had more time to prepare myself for the end.

And, like Liesel, we are constantly reminded of the power of words — of books. What was Hitler without his rhetoric? As Death and Liesel both point out continually, he was nothing more than a tiny tyrant full of eloquent speeches, someone who tapped into fear and anger and resentment after World War I and exploited every advantage. Liesel recognizes the words’ ability to transform and empower and uses them, too — to help ordinary Germans, and the Jews, too. And one Jew in particular.

I don’t want to this review on a depressing note, though — because The Book Thief was anything but depressing. It was inspiring and emotional to realize the adversity mankind has faced, to see the sorrows some endure and still carry on, to realize that people who stood up in places like the dirty gutters of Himmel Street against unimaginable pain and humiliation must surely have a special place in Heaven — especially if Death has anything to say about it. I finished the book sitting on a swing in my back yard, staring up at the sun on an absolutely perfect early spring day. When I closed the last pages, I leaned over to pet my dog on the head and immediately started counting my blessings. There are many. And novels like The Book Thief help us remember what life is really all about — loving, caring and being together. Helping one another. And I’m going to work a little harder to remember that every day.

Don’t miss this book — don’t skip over it because of the heavy subject matter, or push it to the bottom of the TBR stack because of its sheer heft (576 pages, but trust me — they go fast!). Read it and share it with others. Pass it on and on and on.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0375842209 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg