Saturday, March 27, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Jane Austen Ruined My Life'

The Book: Jane Austen Ruined My Life

The Author: Beth Pattillo

How I Found It: I read the review on Austenblog ages ago, but my interest was renewed recently by seeing the sequel newly available in stores.

The Review: I remember when I first saw the title for this book, my first thought was, "Well, that doesn't sound very nice...?" It took seeing the review on Austenblog to make me realize that the book was in fact respectful of Austen. I balked on reading it after seeing some iffy comments in that review, but I gave in when the plot of the "sequel" made me curious. I'm glad I gave it my time.

Emma Grant, a professor, is going to London, to her cousin's house, because there is nothing left for her to do. She has recently been divorced, and the scandal surrounding that divorce has ruined her professional career, leaving her desperate to restore her good name.

As it happens, she has a good way to do that-- she has been contacted by an older woman who claims to have access to Jane Austen's lost letters. This woman is a member of the "Formidables", a secret society that has hidden the letters since shortly after Austen's death. Emma is stunned by the amount of letters that have been concealed from the public. Despite being sworn to secrecy, she believes that publishing the letters could restore her academic career. But before she can access the letters, she must complete a series of "tasks" to prove she is worthy.

Complicating the situation is who is currently staying with her at her cousin's house-- Adam, her old friend, with whom she had a falling-out when she told him she was marrying her ex-husband. Emma firmly believes that Jane Austen has ruined her life by teaching her to believe in a happy ending. Badly burned by her experience with her ex-husband, she tries to convince herself she doesn't need to fall in love again. So why is she falling for Adam? Especially when Adam, a scholar on Sir Walter Scott, could be a competitor to publish the letters...

The book was a little slow to start-- I was having iffy feelings about it after twenty pages. Maybe because it was I was on a long bus ride today, but I had a lot of time on my hands and it turned out to be a very quick read. It reminded me in the very best ways of one of my favorite books, Possession by A.S. Byatt. In that book, a scholar who studies a (fictional, in the book's universe) male poet finds evidence (letters, coincidentally, or more specifically drafts of them) that his poet may have been the lover of a female poet of the day. Though a scholar and great-niece of that poet convinces him that could not be, they go on a quest to find out about the past and what could have happened.

It was a pretty enjoyable read, mainly for the journey through Austen's England. Having been there and to London myself, I really enjoyed reading the book and recognizing all those places; the descriptions were vivid and I could really picture the places.

I couldn't quite sympathize with Emma. I have issues when these types of Austen-related novels have heroines who have such bad experiences with men before the novel and are thus completely blind to themselves. (I had this same issue with Laurie Viera Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, which I did not enjoy.) It can be nice if it's done well and the heroine comes to a slow realization (consider Lizzy's "'till this moment I never knew myself" in P&P), but I hate those lightning-fast realizations comparable to Edmund realizing he loves Fanny in the 2007 Mansfield Park adaptation...

I guess that was my small problem with the book-- the plot was good, if a little cliched, but the characterizations felt somewhat thin. The male characters weren't bad; Adam reminded me a little of Grigg in The Jane Austen Book Club, and I liked Barry, the Hemingway scholar Emma meets. Overall, though, I could overlook the slight problem I had with characterization, because I really liked the plot and it was paced so well. I'm really looking forward to reading Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart.

Recommended strongly to fans of Austen or fans of literary intrigue (can that be called a genre? :D).


  1. I was struck by your review, Trai, because when I read it a while back I found 'Ruined' also reminded me of 'Possession.' But unfortunately for me not in a good way, but by reminding me what a nuanced, layered, masterful piece of writing 'Possession' is compared to 'Ruined.' You are kind; that's good in a reviewer!
    Here is my comparison of the two (along with a random rant about the Vicar of Wakefield which you are advised to ignore)

  2. Thanks, Kathleen! As I was reading the first few chapters of Ruined, especially with the letters, the similarities to 'Possession' were starting to take form in my mind. It was only when Emma sat down in the British library that real memories of Roland started dancing through my head. ;)

    I think that 'Ruined' could have been more like 'Possession' were it not for the narration and probably the length of the manuscript. Since 'Possession' was narrated in the 3rd person, I think it had a lot more freedom to go the way it did, with the shifts and switches in narration to Ash and LaMotte's time. If 'Ruined' had been in a similar style, I'm sure it could have done something similar, if that were the goal of the author. Also, the length of the book probably prohibited it from going more in depth-- my hardcover copy of 'Possession' is a bit of a brick compared to 'Ruined'!

    I do agree with your comment (that also came up in the Austenblog review) that Emma (nor any of her friends, actually) didn't really speak like people with doctorates in literature. I suppose it would make the book slightly more accessible as a regular fiction book. I enjoyed it, though so much more could have been done with the plot and characterizations. Thanks so much for sharing your comparison-- I'm glad I'm not the only one who caught the similarity!