Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Unexpected Miss Bennet'

The Book: The Unexpected Miss Bennet

The Author: Patrice Sarath

How I Found It: This review at Smart Bitches prompted me to take a closer look; I'm always intrigued by Sarah's opinions! Thanks to my local library!

The Review: I was really curious to read a book focusing on Mary Bennet, the stuffy, oft-ignored Bennet sister who's received some shoddy treatment in spinoffs. Lizzy, Jane, Lydia, all of them have gotten their own books, but Kitty and Mary are passed over and treated as plot points if anything. In recent years, Mary got most of the focus of The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, but the former was much maligned and the latter's not to the taste of most Janeites. Thankfully, for those curious, Patrice Sarath has taken up Mary's story in a more conventional manner.

When the novel starts, Mary has no say in her future--Mrs. Bennet has declared that she shall be her and Mr. Bennet's companion in their old age, and foisted onto Jane and Bingley after that. Jane is pained to see Mary's future chances so neglected as a result of her plainness and Mrs. Bennet's unconcern now she and Lizzy have made good matches, and writes to Lizzy at Pemberley to propose a plan to guide Kitty and Mary into good society.

Mary is quickly taken under the wing of the Darcy family, and at Pemberley she comes to a better understanding of herself. What if Fordyce's Sermons aren't as helpful as she once thought (gasp!)? Can she and Lizzy finally come to understand each other, and might not Georgiana be a suitable friend? How will she react to the frequent company of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins? And what about Mr. Aikens, a potential suitor from Meryton who seems determined to know her better?

I will give Ms. Sarath credit for taking an angle on Pride and Prejudice sequels that many do not, but overall, I think this sequel was good for the curiosity of a Mary-centric story and not much else. Sarath does a nice job of sticking to Austen's lightly comic tone; Mary's friendship with Georgiana in particular is tinged with a light brush of metafiction in regards to their reading choices. The little glimpses we get of Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage are sweet, and I particularly liked seeing Georgiana as more of a standard teenager than one normally sees in variations and sequels. Darcy is the standard overprotective brother, but Lizzy has called him out and softened him a bit, as is evident in this amusing exchange: "Darcy raised a brow at his sister. ‘You have Lizzy to thank for that, Georgiana. She persuaded me that locking you up in the tower as you deserve would only give you delusions of persecution. Henceforth I ignore you for your own good.’" (70).

Mary's self-discovery was fun to read about; I enjoyed seeing her cast off her pursuits from the original novel when she realizes how they dissatisfy her. She learns to dance. She reads horrid novels. She becomes more courageous and confident--a little like Lizzy, but all her own--by learning to stand up to Lady Catherine and finally coming to see Mr. Collins for the odious man he is. But while I think Sarath did a good job at keeping to characterizations for the most part, her tale occasionally suffered from exaggeration of traits to the point that characters started verging on hyperbole. Lady Catherine is just outright rude and wants revenge against Elizabeth for marrying Darcy--while I could buy a tranquil fury at Elizabeth, I think she'd have a bit more tact than to want revenge. This is one of those books where Anne is secretly a bit  manipulative and mean, a trope I'm not a fan of. One of my biggest problems was an offhand line about Darcy wanting "less to avenge Lydia than to have reason at last to avenge Georgiana's near disgrace" (174). I admittedly did an eyebrow raise there; Darcy also didn't strike me as the type to want to avenge Georgiana's honor (and one would've thought he took care of that both times he saw our friend Wickham entangled in elopements). Some of Austen's original characters were kind of warped into weird exaggerations of their original selves, which made for occasional groans while reading.

Anyone going into the book expecting a romance along the lines of most sequels will be disappointed. I was surprised to see just how minor a subplot Mr. Aikens really was. Mary's search for fulfillment and better self-knowledge somewhat pushes Aikens to the side, which makes their attraction feel a bit rushed by the time he becomes a more major player. He had been in three scenes, total, when he started claiming to know Mary better than Lizzy and Darcy, which irked me. Had the novel been longer than a scant 250 pages, I would've appreciated Mary's self-discovery getting all the time it did, but giving Aikens' courtship of her about fifty or sixty more pages, to properly flesh him out as a love interest.

Sarath's major problem was telling and not showing. Granted, we get a lot of that in Austen, where major conflicts like Lydia eloping or Tom Bertram's illness are conveyed through letters, but Sarath was not quite so skilled. We actually do see Kitty coming to stay with Jane, but everything we hear after that is through letters to Lizzy, even things that would've made interesting reading--including a scandalous drunken visit to a tiger cage (yes, you read that right). I wanted to see the incidents described, or at least the more interesting ones, not just hear them glossed over in a sentence or two as though they were part of a story outline. Even if the book is focused on Mary, if you're going to give me drunk people and tigers, I want the full show, not just a tease!

Overall, if one's dying for an unconventional Pride and Prejudice sequel, Sarath's focus on Mary is a nice, light read. If one doesn't mind some hyperbole in the characters and a lot of telling and not showing, this is a nice look into Mary getting a backbone and becoming less pretentious than she was in the original and coming in to the Bennet name.