Friday, December 31, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Mr. Darcy's Obsession'

The Book: Mr. Darcy's Obsession

The Author: Abigail Reynolds

How I Found It: This was the first I read of Abigail Reynolds' Pemberley Variations series, but not my first experience with her work (see my review of The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice, her modern-day P&P). I have plans to read the rest; I'm pretty sure she was one of the first to come up with the now-ubiquitous variations idea.

The Review: Abigail Reynolds is known for taking Pride and Prejudice and changing things around, playing with the "what ifs?" Here, the story is based around the idea that Mr. Bennet was taken ill before Mr. Darcy could propose to Lizzy at Rosings. She departs to care for her ailing father, and when he dies, Longbourn is entailed to Mr. Collins and Charlotte.

Now, two years later, Darcy and Bingley are both concerned about the circumstances of their lost loves. Bingley is deeply angered by Jane's marriage to a much-older shopkeeper, even if it provides for the Bennet family. Darcy, meanwhile, finds Elizabeth living in Cheapside with her aunt and uncle Gardiner, acting as a semi-governess to their children. Though he knows it is unacceptable to society, he renews his acquaintance with Elizabeth and tries to express his concern for her welfare.

As time passes and Darcy's love for Elizabeth deepens, he decides that he can live with nothing less than making her his wife and rescuing her from the life she now has, society be damned. When Elizabeth misinterprets his proposal as an offer to be his mistress, she angrily refuses, and their connection may be damaged beyond repair. Just as Darcy might be able to redeem himself, reckless actions by Lydia threaten to sink the Bennets even lower than before, and Darcy is left to wonder how he can possibly marry her now.

I've heard, from reviews and fellow readers, that Reynolds' works have improved over the years. This might be the first variation I've ever read, but I honestly don't know if any others will top it. This was surprisingly dark and showed a very seamy side of England of the time, and I found myself loving every minute of it. Reynolds is apparently at work on a sequel involving Georgiana, and I, for one, can't wait.

Reynolds is normally known for the steamy scenes in her works, but for all the seamy society we were shown in this one, there was no outright sex, which was a great achievement. Reynolds manages to capture the gritty aspects of society perfectly without ever delving into the down and dirty. All Lizzy and Darcy ever do here is kiss a few times, and there's some touching of bare hands that manages to be incredibly sensual and romantic. Even if there's no actual sex, however, I wouldn't recommend this one to anyone below 15 or 16 or so--there's references to incest and molestation, mistresses, prostitutes, etc. The dark tone was one thing I really liked about the story. Even if Austen herself referred to Pride and Prejudice as "light, bright, and sparkling," Reynolds somehow made a dark variation work and seem completely in character. Biggest possible kudos to her.

With that said, I liked seeing how she chose to flesh out certain characters and storylines, with just one exception that felt slightly unnecessary and redundant. The Georgiana/Wickham backstory came with an extra layer that provoked a serious "EWWWW!" from me at first (and subsequently). I can understand why Reynolds included it, but it really did feel unnecessary to me. All that aside, the characterizations were done well. Darcy's change is gradual and happens believably. Elizabeth is sometimes a little too witty and modern, but slightly more feminist spins on Lizzy are nothing new, so it's forgivable. Bingley especially got so much more depth than Austen gave him, and he doesn't even have that much screentime! Calm as he is in the original, here he is angry and fairly bitter at Jane's circumstances, but it always felt believable and never once contrived.

The new and expanded characters were also a joy to read. Darcy's unsuitable-for-society Aunt Augusta is introduced fairly late in the book, but she's a real riot, and I'd love to see what her exploits are with Georgiana in the sequel. Mary, a servant girl, comes to Darcy in unusual circumstances, and Darcy accepting her into his staff was touching and true to his characterization in P&P. The real star of the book is Charlie, the street urchin Darcy hires to spy on Lizzy. I agree with many reviewers that he was reminiscent of a Georgette Heyer character. Reynolds also expands on Darcy's family, including Colonel Fitzwilliam, and explores, through them, the dominance men still had over women at that time.

There are a lot of subplots going on, but they are all tied together at the end. No matter how impossible it seems, the happy ending promised by an Austen novel is still there. Everything about this book was just wonderful and I really look forward to Reynolds' other variations with a fervor I hadn't before. Recommended to fans who don't mind reading about the darker side of the period, or to those who want to see a different, more emotional side to those same characters they know so well.

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