That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:That Summer, by Lauren Willig (2014 )

After a successful divergence from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation series with the post-Edwardian The Ashford Affair, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig again embarks on another stand-alone narrative. Entangling one generation with the past is Willig’s trademark, and That Summer is of modern day Julia Conley as well as her ancestors in 1849.

In 2009, motherless Julia inherits an old family house in England from a great Aunt Regina Ashe, a woman she cannot even recall. One of the recently unemployed in the recession, she travels from New York City to Herne Hill, a district south of London, to view her inheritance and unload it as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, she meets her exceedingly obliging and maybe even presumptuous cousin, Natalie, who eagerly volunteers to help sort the old mansion and later even brings along the fine Nicholas Dorrington, if somewhat taciturn antiques dealer, to value the lot. Although they jest concerning hidden treasures, Julia cannot but wonder if in fact there might be some sort of riches her relations hope to unearth beneath the years of dust, dank oddments and papers. But what she had not expected was to exhume memories of her childhood.

Julia’s hand was on the knob of the door before she realized that she had retreated, step by step, ready to duck out and shut the door. She laughed shakily. Great. Metaphor made action. Her English professors in college would have loved that. Shut the door and shut the door. Just like she had been shutting the door all these years. Julia’s knuckles were white against the old brass doorknob. This was insane. Insane. What was she so afraid of? What was she so afraid of remembering? Maybe she was just afraid she would miss her. Her mother.” (87)

In 1849, Imogene Grantham has been married to the much older Arthur, collector of antiquities and artifacts, for nearly a decade. And though she naively thought she was marrying for love, it was not long before she realized she was to be just another showpiece to adorn his home. Oddly, Arthur’s late wife’s sister, a Miss Jane Cooper, a bitter and suspicious woman, continues to manage the house. A lonely life to be sure, with Imogene’s only pleasure deriving from the adoration of Evie, her step-daughter. When three pre-Raphaelite artists come to admire Grantham’s collection, an unsuspecting Imogene is observed by the reticent Gavin Thorne.

Nor was Mrs. Grantham in Augustus’s style. He liked pink and white society beauties. If Miss Cooper was a Rembrandt sketch of a purse-lipped Dutch housewife and Miss Evangeline Grantham a Dresden shepherdess, all pink and white, and yellow curls, Mrs. Grantham was something else, entirely. In the candlelight she was ebony and ivory, the dark waves of her hair accentuating the strong bones of her face.” (59-60)

Nevertheless, Imogene was all too aware of the attentions Mr. Augustus Fotheringay-Vaughn bestowed upon the 16 year old Evangeline. (Vaughn? Vaughn! Surely not the “spawn of Vaughn”—from Willig’s The Pink Carnation series? Oh, heaven help the artless heiress.)

As Julia discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting concealed behind a false wall in an armoire—and as she and Nick sift through the house for more clues as to authenticity, why the piece was secreted away, and why the likeness between the woman in this Tristan and Isolde scene to that of the formal yet forlorn portrait prominently displayed in the drawing room—a developing magnetism between the two cannot be denied. Still, Nick is an art dealer and Natalie, who seems to have her eyes on Nick, puts Julia on her guard.

Lauren Willig has painted lush, colorful characters and layered historical details, touches of mystery and romance with a deft brush that made me yearn for more. A masterful work of art, That Summer is sure to become this summer’s Must Read in women’s fiction.

5 out of 5 Stars

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press (2014)
Hardcover (352) pages
ISBN: 978-1250014504

Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press © 2014; text Christina Boyd © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library.

Indeed, if you bought this book for Dame Harriet Walter’s essay “Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle” alone, you would have spent your money well. Walter, whom Janeites will fondly remember as Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, masterfully writes about her wrestling with Shakespeare’s conflicted presentation of women from the perspective of an actress with modern sensibilities. Shakespeare, she argues, often pits the female leads against the heroes’ male best-friends in competition for the heroes’ love, as in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Merchant of Venice, to name a few. This creates an interesting, semi-homoerotic love triangle and explains the sometimes seemingly irrational actions of the heroes’ friends (390). It was coming to appreciate this male perspective in Much Ado About Nothing that helped Walter to then understand her own role as Beatrice, particularly her harsh, anti-bromantic ultimatum to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” (392).

However, full reconciliation with Shakespeare isn’t quite possible sometimes, according to Walter, especially given that many of the female roles demand women themselves pronounce misogynistic views (396). Eve Best, another English actress who has worked through the “problem spots” to find the soul of the female roles, writes beautifully about her compassion for Lady Macbeth, one of most iconic of Shakespeare’s characters. According Best, Lady Macbeth’s bloody-thirsty drive to make her husband king of Scotland, is all “…about love. And, very possibly…about finding a replacement for their child” (384). Of course, the play’s a tragedy, so the plan goes horribly wrong, dividing Lady Macbeth from her husband forever. The does not change the fact that Lady Macbeth was a woman driven by love.

I admit that I was most fond of the essays written by actors who share an abiding sensitivity for the humanity of their characters, as Rory Kinnear describes with Angelo from Measure for Measure and Hamlet, and F. Murray Abraham with Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Given he’s played the role seven times, James Earl Jones’ depth of understanding and compassion for Othello’s tragic situation is remarkable –but then so is Eamonn Walker’s, who writes “Othello is about many different kinds of love: it’s about the light, beautiful side of love, and it’s about the twisted, darker side of love, and it’s about how, if you flip the emotional coin, love can make you do terrible things” (145).

For those not in the theatre business, the insights from directors may be equally interesting and helpful for appreciating the importance of encountering dramatic works, even those from the sixteenth century, as living, evolving texts to be molded, edited, and re-envisioned. Essays by Karin Coonrod, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Jess Winfield, and the Fiasco Theatre all invite the reader to attend a play or to pick up the text and start over–refashioning the story based on time, place, and circumstance, while remaining true to the story’s essence. As Coonrod writes “I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each [play]” (291). Often, the key to unlocking the story’s secrets lies in a simple image.

Ironically, I found that some of the essays that I least enjoyed were written by career writers, authors whom I respect. Isabel Allende’s tale of encountering Shakespeare in translation was charming, but not very insightful. Jane Smiley, who wrote the powerful King Lear inspired novel A Thousand Acres, talks about her inspiration, but without illuminating the original text or her own much further. Joyce Carol Oates tediously plods through the plot of Antony and Cleopatra. And Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay is a mostly a series of quotes, including a huge passage from a story she herself wrote. Equally disappointing (though well-meaning) were Peter David’s diatribe against modern ignorance about Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ben Kingsley lament about the loss of beautiful speech in contemporary language. It is sad, of course, that people are not reading Shakespeare, and tragic that they they do not speak in elevated syntax and diction, but, alas, tell us something we did not know already.

Fortunately, the bulk of this collection is simply amazing, insightful, and entertaining. I would even argue that a few of the essays are actually important, in terms of their significant contributions to the on-going discernment of Shakespeare’s relevancy to the modern world. Among the best, Brian Cox’s essay “I Say It Is the Moon” about how Shakespeare, through characters like Edgar in King Lear, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, “teaches us how to live between one political paradigm and the next, in the middle of social contradictions, and right at the heart of all the emotional paradoxes of the human condition…The ultimate paradox, of course, [being] that even though we’re all going to die, we’ve all got to live in the meantime” (218).

Do you have to have read or seen all of the plays to understand this book? No; but I bet you will want to after you’ve read so many talented people express their life-changing experiences with Shakespeare’s immortal heroes and heroines, ghosts and witches, gods and monsters, since they all turn out to be so profoundly human like you and me.

5 out of 5 Stars

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson
Vintage (2013)
Trade paperback (528) pages
ISBN:  978-0307742919

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel, by Katherine Reay – A Review

Dear Mr Knightley, by Katherine Reay (2013) From the desk of Diana Birchall:

Does anyone remember Daddy-Long-Legs, the enchanting 1955 movie in which Fred Astaire is the benevolent, mysterious, rich sponsor who sends the exquisite young French girl Leslie Caron, to college? It was a favorite musical of my childhood, along with a string of other Caron and Audrey Hepburn films. Daddy-Long-Legs actually started life, however, as long ago as 1912, as a bright, effervescent, epistolary novel by Jean Webster. It enjoyed a huge success as a Broadway play and was filmed several times, including a Japanese anime version.

Now new author Katherine Reay, instead of penning yet another in a lengthy backlist of Jane Austen updates, has cleverly chosen to write a modern retelling of Daddy-Long-Legs. Her Dear Mr. Knightley has a thoughtful literary setting, with enough Austen and Bronte references to provide intellectual mind candy for the reading woman. She also bestows an unusually satisfying romance upon her heroine, and succeeds in creating a portrait of a young writer that is so poignantly fresh and full of growing pains and uncertainties, that you question why she ever needed to lean on somebody else’s old classic at all.

In Jean Webster’s original version, the heroine, Jerusha Abbot, was fifteen and still working in the orphan asylum where she was raised, when her rich benefactor sends her to a posh college. In her version, Katherine Reay advances her orphan’s age to twenty-three, and this constitutes my main problem with the novel, and the reason I wish she’d left the Daddy-Long-Legs template behind her. Samantha Moore has already graduated from college and failed in her first job, when she is offered a full tuition grant to the master’s program of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, by a wealthy philanthropist. The only stipulation is that she write him personal progress letters, which he will not answer. His assistant suggests she address him as “Mr. George Knightley,” in tribute to Samantha’s own love for Jane Austen and Emma.

So the letters begin, with Samantha explaining herself and her ambitions to her benefactor. She has lived at Grace House, a Catholic institution, since she was fifteen, where her mentor, Father John, early recognized and encouraged her writing and journalistic talents. Samantha is hooked on books from mysteries to the Victorian classics; they are her passion and her escape. With a difficult life, owing to the death of neglectful, abusive parents, and bouncing from one foster home to another, she has understandably grown up feeling safer in fiction than reality. She relates to Fanny Price and Anne Elliot better than to her troubled roommates at Grace House. She’s not even sure she wants to be a journalist – fiction is her thing – but Medill would help her achieve her great dream, to write for a living. So she accepts Mr. Knightley’s offer.

Trouble is, she doesn’t get into Medill first round; she’s wait-listed, and in disappointment retreats to her part time jobs. She also develops an unlikely friendship with a black 13-year-old orphan named Kyle, who shares her passion for running. He rejects her kindness at first, but soon comes to like and trust Samantha, and encourages her in her dreams as she does him. Then she is finally accepted at Medill, and her great adventure in education begins.

It isn’t easy. Her rigorous professor is tough on her, saying that she’s not connecting in her writing, and will be bounced from the program if she doesn’t put her soul into her stories. Samantha is discouraged and struggles with plenty of problems – her disappointment in herself, her trauma when she is beaten by an attacker at night, her dates with a superficial young man named Josh who doesn’t understand her background, and her friendship with a brilliant best-selling novelist, Alex, who treats her like an equal and introduces her to a lovely older couple who become surrogate parents. Samantha has a lot to sort out, and her journey to self-knowledge, achievement, and love, is what’s most natural and compelling about this novel. It’s the framework that’s ultimately distracting and less successful. The updating, whether from 1912 or 1955, often doesn’t ring true; there are too many discrepancies with the modern world and its economic realities. In what universe does a journalism grad student get such a free ride with all the trimmings, connections, and the assurance of a career? In these circumstances Samantha’s writerly whining and angst can border on the naïve and annoying. Despite such cavils, it’s possible to see beyond the book’s implausibilities because it also possesses heart, mind, and a heroine whose awkwardness, uncertainty, and longing for affirmation make her so endearingly likeable that the reader will be swept into her touching emotional journey.

4 out of 5 Stars

Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel, by Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1401689681

Diana Birchall, is a story analyst who reads novels for Warner Bros Studios. She is the author of the Jane Austen-related novels Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, and also a scholarly biography of her grandmother, Onoto Watanna, the first Asian American novelist. Her story “Jane Austen’s Cat” appears in the Random House anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and her Austen-related plays have had readings around the country and in Canada.  

Cover image courtesy Thomas Nelson © 2013; text Diana Birchall © 2013, Austenprose.com

A Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Summer in Europe, by Marylin Brant (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“A chorus of Happy Birthday roused her into greater awareness of the rest of the group.  Her aunt, who’d managed to light candles on a big, chocolate, sprinkle-covered birthday cake, came forward in song and demanded Gwen’s attention.  She thought about her wish: to be happy, secure, loved by someone and not so very afraid her life would end before she got to experience this.  She took a breath and blew.

Every candle went out.  All except one.”

So begins the 30th year of the life of Gwen, a beige-slipper-wearing, commitment-obsessive, scrupulously diligent Iowa girl.  She loves Andrew Lloyd Weber, meticulous flossing and fruit kebabs, and she knows in her heart that all she wants is to be engaged…to an insurance agent with the company motto on the back of his car.

If you think it sounds dull, you’re right!  Gwen is lost in a life of muted and measured structure, swimming in bowls of bran cereal and floral peach skirts, Barbara Streisand, pearl earrings, and crippling juvenile embarrassment about her own sexuality.  She’s the dreariest 30-year-old you’ll ever meet, but you’ll hope for the best as Gwen’s feisty Aunt Bea surprises her with a trip to Europe.  Think of the possibilities!  She can walk among the ruins of Rome!  She can eat Sachertorte in Vienna and meander the watery streets of Venice!  She can live for once!  That is, if she’s ready to be alive at all, to breathe in and out, to take it all in.

I had my doubts, actually.  Gwen is chronically detached from everything around her, constantly moping and pouting as she participates in the classic American-in-Western-Europe experience: Italy, Austria, Hungary, France and England with a tour guide and a group of octogenarians.  As she wanders around, uninspired and lifeless, she begins to slowly understand how much she’s missing as a result of her fear and mistrust of the unknown.  Where was her path leading?  What the hell was she doing, traipsing around like a lost puppy?  Where’s the life in her life?  Gradually, she begins to figure things out with the help of a gregarious English man and his spontaneous younger brother, her aunt, and the other tour mates whose sparkling personalities utterly dwarf her own.

Having read Marilyn Brant’s work before, I was unsurprised when the prose and phrasing of the book rolled through my mind like honey, beautifully structured and carefully executed with the clarity of a practiced writer.  A Summer in Europe reads a lot like a travel guide, with snippets of history and accounts of heavily-visited landmarks and restaurants, hotels and gelato stands, coffeehouses and boutiques, an undertaking that must’ve been challenging and complicated.  Again Ms. Brant’s commitment to quality sings true, as seen in her previous works like Friday Mornings at Nine.

But just like Friday Mornings at Nine, my scruples with the book came with the depiction of characters, both main and supporting.  I rolled my eyes at Gwen’s lack of strength, passions, or pursuits and her inability to order her own meals, but I let out an audible “UGH!” at her girlish blushing in front of David in Florence.   I found myself saying, “REALLY?!” when Gwen bounced back and forth between two men, entertaining the idea of being with both of them but never considering what would happen if she were to simply be alone, to wander off the beaten track by herself and think things through.  Gwen is on a non-adventure adventure, and her determination to be a woman of the world seems disingenuous and totally insincere by the end.  A Summer in Europe’s secondary roles are filled by wholly predictable creatures, complete with bad jokes, gender stereotypes, and rounded off with an absurd encounter with “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” that I’ll leave open to your imagination.

With all the talent that seems to be pouring out of Marilyn Brant’s fingers, I still greatly look forward to another contribution.  A Summer in Europe may absolutely be worth your time if you appreciate the simple beauty of seamless prose, or if you’re thinking about visiting Europe for the first time, but you may also find that you’re better off waiting for her next book.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant
Kensington Publishing (2011)
Trade paperback (352) pages
ISBN: 978-0758261519
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758274212
Kindle: ASIN: B005G023VI

© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Not too long ago, I picked up my old and battered copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and reread the novel.  It was my third reading.  I was pretty confident that I would stop reading after the first few chapters, thinking that I only wanted a small dose of familiarity and good, old-fashioned Gothic comfort before turning to something else, something new.  Jane’s haunting self-awareness, however, sucked me in (again) and I read the whole thing through trying hard to keep feelings of guilt at bay for what felt like a waste of my time.  I shouldn’t be rereading Jane Eyre, I told myself, when I still haven’t read Bronte’s Shirley or the book I checked out from the library or this book or that book that I should read for this or that reason.

And yet, despite these feelings, I reread all the time and I’ll probably never stop.  In fact, I hope I never do because my third reading of Jane Eyre was, so far, my most enjoyable.  “This passion for sameness,” as recently retired Literature professor and editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Patricia Meyer Spacks describes it, is the subject of her new book On Rereading, an interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir.  Released late last year by Harvard University Press, Spacks’ book attempts to answer the very fascinating question of why we read the same books over and over again.

Spacks’ book is mostly a collection of thoughts about novels reread over a period of one year, an attempt to trace personal development and growth through literature revisited.  After a nuanced examination of the act of rereading, Spacks begins her experiment with children’s books with such classics as Alice in Wonderland.  A substantial chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma follows with a discussion of how these novels continue to instruct far beyond the initial reading.  A number of chapters are devoted to the project of trying to disentangle personal and social history from the books we read and reread followed by chapters on recreational and professional rereading.  Of course, like any comprehensive book on rereading, the temptation of rereading books we should have liked, and those we feel we shouldn’t have liked but did anyway, is also explored.  The book ends with the lovely articulation that we are never alone when we read since through reading and rereading we are in a silent exchange with the book’s author, with the generations of readers before and after us, etc., that the act of rereading can be far more dynamic and interactive than we realize.

Rereading, according to Spacks, is “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight.  It rouses or soothes or reassures.  And…it can provide security” (2).  This sense of security is born from a text’s seeming stability since, as we all know, the words on the page do not change with time.  And, yet, the conviction that change has indeed taken place when we reread can feel so powerful as to convince us otherwise.  It is this sense of change, this “something,” that fascinates Spacks.  The book may not have changed over time but we, as readers, definitely have and, consequently, our relation to the book has changed as well.

Underpinning this experiment are assumptions worth highlighting: reading fiction is important, recreational reading is important, and rereading need not be an act of avoidance or laziness but re-engagement.  Readers of this blog will probably find the act of rereading pretty standard as, according to an informal British survey mentioned in Spacks’ book, Pride and Prejudice is the third most popular reread text (the Harry Potter books, interestingly, are the first most popular).  And, arguably, the countless contemporary re-imaginings of Austen’s world are, to my mind anyway, a type of rereading – we revisit and re-imagine and relive our experience(s) of reading Austen’s books whenever we pick up a contemporary book featuring Darcy or Lizzy Bennet.  Spacks’ book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you’ve ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over.  But, fair warning, you’ll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you’re done.  Hopefully with a little less guilt.

4 out of 5 Stars

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0674062221
Kindle: ASIN: B006LZTL9O
Nook: ISBN: 978-0674063310

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose