Monday, May 24, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart'

Hello again! I took a small break from reading and reviewing in the last couple weeks in order to study for finals, but I'm back now in full force. In particular, I'm waiting with bated breath for tomorrow's release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, so expect that review as soon as I finish! In the meantime, here's a review of my first book of the summer.

The Book: Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart

The Author: Beth Pattillo

How I Found It: I read Pattillo's first book, and my review can be found here.

The Review: Claire Prescott has built her life around taking care of others. Her parents died in an accident when she was 18, and she was left to care for her little sister Missy. Now, years later, her life is in disarray. She never went to college and has been fired from her job as an office assistant. She is dating a not-particularly-attentive sports fanatic, Neil, who probably hasn't even noticed that she has left the United States for England. She is traveling to Oxford to attend a seminar on Pride & Prejudice in the place of her sister, who cannot attend due to pregnancy complications. Claire is not particularly enthralled with either the book or Mr. Darcy, but she cannot disappoint her sister.

Once there, Claire meets a few enticing people. One is Martin, an older man with a love of Jane Austen who offers Claire almost fatherly guidance. Another is James Beaufort, a publishing magnate who is unnervingly like Austen's Mr. Darcy. And the last is Harriet Dalrymple, an older woman who possesses what she claims is Austen's lost first draft of Pride and Prejudice, entitled First Impressions. Harriet's possession of the manuscript is threatened, as the leader of the Formidables (the secret society first introduced in Pattillo's previous book) would like nothing more than to take the manuscript from her, given her advanced age. Claire finds herself faced with a few different problems: how to deal with the knowledge of a secret Austen manuscript, how to deal with those around her and Harriet who would like to take the manuscript, and how to sort out her feelings about both James and Neil.

I liked that this book had elements in common with Pattillo's other book, but that she made an entirely different take on a similar story. To start with, Claire is simply an ordinary woman, an everywoman, as opposed to Emma's PhD in Ruined. (I couldn't help but wonder if this was Pattillo's response to the many criticisms of Ruined that pointed out that Emma did not speak like a doctorate.) Rather than being a seasoned Austen fan, Claire is slightly bewildered by all the Austen obsession and is only just finding her way into Austen for the first time. Similarly, she is not being asked to join the Formidables, but instead finds herself in their midst entirely by accident. Claire is caught between two different men, and Pattillo uses the device of Austen's "first draft" (or, at least, a fictional version of it) to parallel Claire's story and provide her with guidance.

So while the book had some things in common with Pattillo's first book, it was nice that this was an entirely different experience. It showed her versatility as a writer that she could take two stories with similar elements and make them entirely separate from each other. I have to admit that I liked this one better than I liked Ruined, but oddly enough, it wasn't as engaging, if that makes any sense. In Ruined, I was spurred on because I wanted to know the mystery behind Jane Austen's lost letters. Here, there wasn't any mystery, so I couldn't get into it as much. Still, all things considered, it's a quick read.

Pattillo's imagined version of Pride & Prejudice had a few problems, too. First, it just didn't sound like Austen, which is to be suspected somewhat, given that no one else probably could. Second, there are a few mistakes. "Hunsford", Mr. Collins' parsonage, is spelled "Huntsford". Mr. Darcy calls Elizabeth "Miss Bennet" multiple times, even though Elizabeth would be called "Miss Elizabeth Bennet". (I thought it could have been because in this "draft", Darcy might not take into consideration that Lizzy has an older sister, but Colonel Fitzwilliam always addresses her as "Miss Elizabeth".) There's also the continual misspelling of Elizabeth's nickname "Lizzy" as "Lizzie".

*** Beyond here be spoilers, matey. ***

What I had problems with was Claire's romantic conflict with Neil and James. I just didn't like how that was resolved; it felt too contrived. We're supposed to accept that James isn't all that nice a guy and that Claire just never realized Neil's good qualities until he was in front of her. I just didn't see how Neil being inattentive and focused on sports suddenly morphed into Claire being too concerned with others to notice that he was a good guy. It seemed like a cop out. It also didn't help that we didn't see any of Neil before Claire left for England. It would have been nice for us to make our own judgments, instead of Claire's opinion being the only thing to go on, which is what made it feel forced to me. Still, the ending was slightly more satisfying than in Ruined, where Emma chooses to be with no one.

I also didn't like how desperately Claire depended on the manuscript to give her answers. It's fine to accept guidance from fictional characters--it's what it comes down to in a lot of Austen-inspired contemporary novels--but it just made Claire seem weak-willed and too easily swayed.

*** Here end the spoilers. ***

While the book had its flaws, it was still an enjoyable read. I liked Pattillo's device of the alternate story, and I really enjoyed the characters of Claire (even when she got on my nerves) and Martin, the Austen scholar. I know Pattillo is working on a third Austenesque book as well as a Jane Eyre-related one, and she's going on my list of authors to keep in mind when a new book is coming out. Overall, even with its flaws, I'd recommend this one to Janeites looking for a fun read. (To all others, I wouldn't recommend it unless you've read Pride & Prejudice or are familiar enough with the story to spot the differences, but since Claire herself points them out in the book, it might not be that big a deal.)

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