The Author: Mary Lydon Simonsen
How I Found It: I have an interest in Pride & Prejudice variations, and this one's plot summary intrigued me. As a sidenote, this was one of the last purchases I made at my late, lamented local Borders.
The Review: Fitzwilliam Darcy has come to Longbourn to do something he has never done before: apologize to a lady. Upon realizing that his "tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me" remark was overheard by more than a few people in attendance at the local ball, Darcy goes to apologize in person to Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth accepts his apology, but then lightly spars with him, engaging him in conversation and teasing like no other woman has done before.
Despite his growing interest in Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy has other matters to think of--mostly, his family title. The Darcys are a line stretching back to the Conquerors and Darcy must make an advantageous match with a rich woman if Georgiana is to have any future prospects at all. Elizabeth is far below his station; she would never be a suitable match for him. So Darcy embarks on a courtship with Letitia Montford, who might not be quite so well-suited for him as Georgiana and others believe. Soon enough, Darcy is entangled in a courtship with one woman and in love with another, with seemingly no way of getting out of either. And that's only the beginning of his troubles.
I have to say I was a little intimidated by this one at first--the lengthy discussions of Darcy's ancestors and their respective positions in society baffled me just a bit (can I get a diagram, please?) and I found myself wondering a few times if we hadn't already been over this issue in enough depth. Once I got past that obstacle of understanding, I found that this variation worked on several levels, that it didn't ignore the side characters just because they're not Lizzy and Darcy, and that I was laughing aloud and in public at several parts I particularly enjoyed. This variation did one better on the others I've read, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it in the end.
One thing many reviewers take issue with in variations is the tendency to work in passages from Austen's original, which some think feels forced or just off (we've read the original; we know how it goes), but I found myself smiling at how Simonsen worked in the bits I most remembered, often with a sort of clever twist. I remember smiling at my book when I read Darcy and Lizzy's first conversation in the Bennet parlor:
"Whether it be Meryton or London, I hear the same conversations. A lady will comment on the number of couples in attendance at a dance, and the gentleman will respond by mentioning the size of the ballroom. And what, pray tell, do we learn from that exchange? One party is good with measurements, and the other can count."This was a funny variation on Lizzy and Darcy's conversation whilst dancing at the Netherfield ball in the original ("It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy--I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."). I have occasionally found myself wincing at the forced inclusion of the original's dialogue in some variations, but this was a clever twist on a well-known conversation, and it never felt as though Simonsen were forcing words into Lizzy and Darcy's mouths just to get in that little nod to the text.
Now Lizzy laughed openly. "Sir, you mistake the purpose of such an exchange. It is certainly not about the dimensions of the room or the number of couples. The parties are merely trying to sketch each other's character so that they might discover if this is a person they would like to get to know better..." (3)
As I said above, one of the things I liked most about the book was the inclusion of the side characters. Jane gets a fun subplot as she tries to wrangle Bingley's unruly young nieces and nephews into submission, and it's even shown that Jane has more of a backbone than outsides think, an angle that I loved. Darcy's family quickly recognizes what a predicament Darcy is in and how much he loves Elizabeth, and the entire cavalry works together to solve his problem (an especial tip of the hat to Lord Fitzwilliam, who was outrageously funny and who deserves a book all his own). Darcy and Georgiana's relationship especially was explored to my satisfaction; Darcy is shown to be dealing with Georgiana being older and able to express opinions of her own to him now that she is almost out in society, and they have a teasing, fun relationship that was fun to read about. One of the things I liked best about the 2005 film adaptation of P&P was the attention given to Darcy and Georgiana's bond, and that was definitely carried off here. I had to snicker when Darcy figures out a plot of Georgiana's and she casually tells him it's not as bad as he thinks and to "please unfurrow [his] brow." Atta girl.
As many side characters as there are, they never take away from Lizzy and Darcy, who remain as the main thrust of the book. As many complications as their courtship is fraught with, Lizzy and Darcy still maintain a fun, somewhat flirty dynamic, and there's several entertaining scenes where they realize the difficulty of getting a moment alone in so many overcrowded households. I really looked forward to those fun scenes, but as much as I knew there'd probably be a happy ending for my beloved couple, I found myself really feeling for the pair in the more dramatic scenes. I knew exactly why Darcy couldn't explain much of anything, but I also knew why Lizzy was so frustrated and wanted answers. If I occasionally want to give either of them a frustrated shake or a comforting hug through the book, that's a good sign.
There was one level to the variation I was sometimes slightly uncomfortable with: yes, this is an Austen variation written in 2011, and yes, there's talk of sex. (My usual buyer beware goes out to parents who might be shopping for young Austen enthusiasts; there's no explicit scenes, but there is frank talk.) It did make sense that Lizzy would be slightly more open about talk of a sexual nature, and that she'd talk about those things with Jane, but there's still that feeling that "oh, God, you're Elizabeth Bennet; you're not supposed to know those things!" It did add some humor to the book, though, and not in an explicit way, so it fit in somewhat gracefully with the rest of the tone.
Overall, this was a many-layered but still very interesting variation on the familiar story, and definitely a standout of the crop I've read so far. The various subplots--and the main plot of how Darcy will manage to get out of his courtship with Miss Montford--were handled with grace, humor, and just a touch of drama, and I cheered as ever for the characters I love so well. For someone who wants a variation they can really sink their teeth into, one that's got a bit of everything, go for it!