Friday, May 24, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Trouble with Flirting'

** Spoilers ahoy! This review will discuss the ending, and it does vary from the original Mansfield Park. Readers beware! **

The Book: The Trouble with Flirting

The Author: Claire LaZebnik

How I Found It: My friend and fellow blogger Kim read and reviewed it, and I'm interested in anything that takes on Mansfield Park, my second favorite Austen, that remains ill-liked by the general Janeite public. My thanks to my local library.

The Review: High school junior Franny Pearson is faced with a problem many students are these days: finding gainful employment for the summer, to earn money for her college education. Her mother comes up with a solution: Franny will help her aunt Amelia sew costumes for the Mansfield Summer Theater Program, where forty-eight of the best high school actors from all across the country go to hone their skills. Franny isn't entirely enthralled with the idea, as she's no great fan of her aunt and wishes she could be on stage herself, but agrees to take the job.

Once there, she finds she's in good company: Julia and Alex Braverman, former school friends of hers, are the niece and nephew of the program's director. Julia and Franny were friends and castmates in several middle school productions, and Franny nursed a crush on Alex back then that doesn't appear to have flamed out. But Franny's not the only one dealing with a crush. Romance just seems to be in the air at Mansfield, and soon enough, two of the other students, Harry and Isabella, are making waves. Isabella is cozying up to Alex, and Harry attracts the attentions of Julia and her roommate Marie--but also seems to have eyes for Franny, who believes Harry is merely a flirt and still wants Alex to notice her as more than a friend. As the summer passes, Franny struggles with her conflicting feelings for both Harry, who might not be as shallow as he first appeared, and for Alex, who might not be the paragon of goodness Franny first saw him as. Flirting certainly does have the potential to get Franny in a lot of trouble...

To begin with: following the success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I have renewed respect for people who can make modernizations of Austen work and work well. I appreciate setting updates, like changing the staging of Lovers' Vows at Mansfield Park into a prestigious theatre program at Mansfield College in this book, and clever updates of plot elements that are no longer relevant in today's world, like the choice to have the militia in Pride and Prejudice be a college swim team in TLBD. After The Lizzie Bennet Diaries did the impossible for me and made me sympathetic towards Lydia, by transforming her from a shallow flirt into a young woman unashamed of her sexuality and unfortunately victimized and emotionally abused by the unscrupulous Wickham, I even warmed to the idea of modern updates to Austen's characters, with a twist. The biggest disappointment for me lay in the ultimate direction this novel went in updating Franny's character, one that, at first, seemed to be taking a cue from Austen, but that ultimately veered way off course for me and into, to my view, unfortunate territory. It's a shame, because LaZebnik seemed to be just there, to the point where I grinned and said a mental Yes! Yes!, because there it was, the real theme of Mansfield Park, the one that people seem to miss when they root for the Crawfords over Fanny and Edmund. But that mental cheer quickly turned to a mental wince.

Just because I found the book's ultimate direction and ending distasteful doesn't mean I hated the book. I was disappointed and didn't like it nearly as much as I thought I would, but LaZebnik did a decent job in the 273 pages preceding the point where she lost me. Those who want Fanny Price to have more of a backbone, this is the book for you. I'm one of the few who loves Austen's Fanny just as she is, because I can relate to her meekness, but even I had to admit liking the changes LaZebnik made with "Franny." I grinned when she wishes, if internally, to be part of a conversation in a capacity that isn't helping other people flirt, and when she doesn't simply submit to Marie's (the Maria Bertram stand-in) order for her to tell her aunt about some costume alterations she wants done, instead telling Marie to do it herself. Franny knows herself and, though she does sometimes stay quiet and doesn't confront others, she isn't afraid to speak up when it really comes down to it. So it was a shame to see her lose that, in the end.

To continue with what I liked about the book, before I start in on what I didn't: LaZebnik's prose is funny without trying too hard or being overwhelming, like Austen; the pages turn quickly and the book is of a reasonable length, just over 300 pages, unlike some of the mammoth YA books that seem to be 400 pages and upwards simply because they can be; and there is some, if slight, representation of gay characters. Yes, it does run with the stereotype that most theater-loving guys are gay, but the thought was there. For those who are leery of such things, there is a brief exchange about genitalia, but it's framed in the context of a joke about tailoring costumes and isn't anything truly explicit. Indeed, the book uses no foul language and even if the characters are teenagers, the only sexual activity explicitly mentioned is kissing, so this one would be appropriate for younger Janeites.

My big problem with the book ultimately lies not with the direction the book chose to go, but with how the resulting message came off, and how I think a modernization of Austen's original theme sort of fell flat. As I said above, I thought initially LaZebnik was really nailing Austen's original message, as Franny reflects on choosing Alex over Harry: "But it was the right choice: Alex over Harry. Substance over style. Kindness over selfishness. Steadiness over unreliability" (212). In those few sentences, LaZebnik reminded me of a defense of Mansfield Park I'd absolutely adored when I first read it. That review pointed out how vulgar the Crawfords were and how Fanny and Edmund, though dull, have an integrity and goodness the Crawfords do not. What bothered me about LaZebnik's take is that she did an abrupt 180, and made the Crawford equivalents the victims.

Franny is told by Isabella how hurt Harry is, following a talk about Alex's kissing Franny without bothering to break up with Isabella first. Franny is still stung by Harry's running off with Marie once she broke things off with him, and Isabella retorts that he wouldn't have done it if he hadn't been so hurt by Franny's rejection. Franny is thus told that Harry's behavior is her fault, and she comes to believe she made assumptions about Harry and didn't bother to look beyond his surface appearance and behavior, in a weirdly Elizabeth Bennet-like moment of self-scrutinization. Alex and Franny are the bad guys here; Alex for unintentionally wavering between Franny and Isabella, despite that Harry did the same by doing nothing to stop Marie and Julia from fighting over him, and Franny for believing Harry is nothing more than a flirt and kissing Alex while he was still with Isabella.

Franny comes to realize her supposed mistake and begs Harry's forgiveness, twice. The second time was where the book really lost me. Earlier, in an echo of the original's trip to Mr. Rushworth's estate, the whole gang goes to the beach, and Franny is carried by Harry after she steps on some sea glass that embeds itself in her foot. When she goes to seek Henry's forgiveness, she takes an empty beer bottle with her, and the following ensues:
He hauls me away from the glass and safely onto the grass at the side of the building. "People like you need to stay away from sharp objects."

"People like you need to rescue me."

"It's a full-time job."

"And it doesn't pay very well."

[...] "You'd really walk barefoot through broken glass for me?"

"I'd crawl through broken glass for you." (274-5)
I was so disgusted I barely knew where to start. This exchange came not long after one where Isabella reams Harry out for buying into her father's idea that she needs protection, explicitly calling him on his sexism. And then suddenly, pages later, Franny is perpetuating the idea that girls need to be rescued from irrational decisions and, most disturbingly, that she'd subject herself to physical harm in order to win back Harry's attentions. What? What happened to strong Franny, Franny who seemed very aware, earlier in the book, of just how badly her previous boyfriends had treated her, Franny who didn't want to be treated that way again? Why was she suddenly simpering and playing into the worst stereotypes?

And it got worse from there. When her relationship with Harry starts up again, Franny jokes that her needs are mostly physical, and reflects a few times on how Harry's a better kisser than Alex. Even worse was this scene, when Harry and Franny congratulate Alex on a successful performance:
Harry takes my hand and tucks it under his arm. It's a small gesture, but I have to hide my smile, because its message is so obvious:

She's mine. (299)
 Not only has Franny offered to put herself in harm's way to win back Harry's affections, she now enjoys him acting possessively towards her, one of the recognizable signs of an abusive relationship or at least one that could head there. My disgust grew. I could understand wanting to impart a new take on the Crawfords, to redeem Henry Crawford and make him someone of substance. Even if I love the original book's message, I could see where a modern-day take on Mansfield Park would be suspicious of the "nice" Edmund and quicker to grant Harry a second look. But the way it came off here disturbed me. In the original, we are meant to feel the injustice of Mary Crawford accusing Fanny of being the cause of Henry and Maria's affair. In LaZebnik's story, the blame is entirely on Franny for misjudging him, and Harry's behavior is handwaved away and easily excused. It bothered me, too, that Franny seemed to consider Alex's lack of experience in kissing a factor in deciding she doesn't want him after all, that her and Harry's subsequent relationship is based on frequent makeout sessions. Never mind that, but their relationship didn't seem to have anything but that going on, whereas Franny and Alex have intellectual conversations early in the novel about Shakespeare and other worthwhile topics. Harry didn't seem like he'd challenge Franny in any way, or bring anything really worthwhile to the table. Alex did.

The final resolution of the book lost me. This version of Fanny lost her determination to hold out for the man she truly believed cared for her, and became someone unrecognizable in order to win back the man she believes herself to love. Alex is written off completely as uncaring and unworthy of Franny's time, and ultimately I felt the book focused on Harry to Alex's detriment; I didn't know Alex the way I "knew" Harry. If Harry and Franny's relationship was shown to be equal and an opportunity for growth for both of them, I wouldn't have minded it, and probably would've been able to forgive the unfortunate way they'd gotten back together. But I just couldn't, here. Austen's message of substance over style was lost, and unfortunate sexist stereotypes prevailed. And the William and Aunt Amelia characters seemed to just be there to bring in more from the original novel, not to serve any tangible purpose in influencing the plot. Ultimately, I think The Trouble with Flirting was a decent effort, but one whose unfortunate implications really ruined it for me.

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