Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame – A Review

Havisham A Novel by Ronald Frame 2013 x 200Dear Mr. Frame:

I recently read Havisham, your prequel and retelling of Charles Dickens Great Expectations, one of my favorite Victorian novels. Your choice to expand the back story of minor character Miss Havisham, the most infamous misandry in literary history, was brilliant. Jilted at the altar she was humiliated and heartbroken, living the rest of her days in her tattered white wedding dress in the decaying family mansion, Satis House. Few female characters have left such a chilling impression on me. I was eager to discover your interpretation of how her early life formed her personality and set those tragic events into motion.

Dickens gave you a fabulous character to work with. (spoilers ahead) Born in Kent in the late eighteenth-century, Catherine’s mother died in childbirth leaving her father, a wealthy brewer, to dote upon his only child. Using his money to move her up the social ladder she is educated with aristocrats where she learns about literature, art, languages and the first disappointments of love. In London she meets and is wooed by the charismatic Charles Compeyson. Family secrets surface in the form of her dissipated half-brother Arthur, the child of a hidden marriage of her father to their cook. Her ailing father knows his son has no interest in his prospering business and trains his clever young daughter. After his death, the inevitable clash occurs between the siblings over money and power. Challenged as a young woman running a business in a man’s world, Catherine struggles until Charles reappears charming his way into her service and her heart. About two thirds of the way through the novel the events of Great Expectations surface. Charles abandons her on their wedding day and she sinks into depression.

I knew that the devastating jilting at the altar was coming! We all did. When it happened, I was anticipating a full-blown emotional Armageddon—like Jane Austen’s heroine Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility: bed-ridden crying jags, desperate letter writing to her lover, senseless walking in the rain, near-death illness, and miraculous survival. Some of that happened in Havisham, but not to the degree I anticipated. After all, we knew that Dickens’ Miss Havisham had taken this jilting business far beyond the depths of disappointed hopes that Marianne had plumbed. But why? Why did she choose not to move on—holding on to her anger and rage, becoming bitter and vengeful? It had to be something so startling that it would jar me to my core. I won’t reveal your choices, but when her tepid romance with Charles Compeyson and her reaction to his spurning were not what I expected, I was greatly disappointed. Readers had been waiting 150 years to know the story. Granted it was not Dickens’ narrative, but it could be the next best thing. You had gotten us to this point so admirably that I was inclined to close your book with an angry snap. If I had a white wedding dress, I would be wearing it right now in protest. You have jilted me at the altar of literature.

Do I regret reading your novel? No. Your prose was beautifully crafted and your characterizations entertaining. Would I like to give you some unsolicited advice on being brave enough to take your own narrative over the edge? Yes! After reading numerous Jane Austen-inspired sequels, you can’t play with classic archetypes and then not deliver the goods. While your plot slowly picked up momentum you missed the point. Catherine’s romance with Charles should have been the most compelling relationship in book, yet I was constantly on guard by his questionable behavior and never liked him, let alone loved him. I never understood why she did. That desperate passion between them should have consumed the pages, like Bronte’s Catherine and Heathcliff, making his final choice so shocking, so devastating, so heartbreaking, that we understood why she locked herself away from the world and enacted revenge on Pip through her daughter Estella. So close, yet miles away from the masters of human emotion, Dickens, Bronte and Austen. They would never have made that mistake.

I commend you for your attempt. It is a very tall order to write a prequel of a literary icon. Everyone who has read Great Expectations has their own great expectations for Miss Havisham. Your book exhibits many fine qualities, unfortunately your choices lacked the fire, passion, and emotional depth required to make her psychological tragedy the literary jackpot that we have been waiting for.

3 out of 5 Regency Stars     

Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame
Picador (2013)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-1250037275

Cover image courtesy of Picador (Macmillan Publishing) © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress, © 2014, Austenprose.com

Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey – A Review

Confessions of Marie Antoinette, by Juliet Grey 2013 From the desk of Lauren Puzier:

In 1789, Marie Antoinette was a thirty-three year old queen, a wife and a mother.  One day in October she took her last walk through the Trianon gardens, her peaceful respite from the demands of palace life, fully unaware that for the next five years she would ride the waves of one of the most moving revolutions in modern history.  Author Juliet Grey invites readers to join Marie Antoinette on a sympathetic journey through this period, in her third fictional narrative of the young queen’s life.  Grey offers a detailed glimpse into Marie Antoinette’s own thoughts as she experiences events and situations, interacts with family and politicians, and tries to understand what is happening to the world around her.

“…I sink to my knees in a deep court curtsy, inclining my head in a show of profound humility. The roar diminishes to a murmur. And when I rise, I lay my arms across my bosom and raise my eyes heavenwards, offering a prayer to God to spare my husband and children…” p. 37

Confessions of Marie Antoinette is set in Versailles, The Tuileries Palace, The Temple and finally, the Conciergie. The royal family of France is moved along from one new home to the next and forced to manage their family life in unthinkable circumstances.  Well researched, Grey provides plenty of detail about main events of the period to create a sense of chaos and reality.  Life was hard outside of Versailles; politicians were serious and mobs were a very dangerous reality.  There was not a week that would go by during this time when a new scandal, trial or story was published fueling the hostility towards the queen and aristocracy.

Peppered with hope, the story is full of attempts and plots presented to save the monarch.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette make seemingly logical decisions regarding all their actions.  Louis’ main concern is the safety of his people and Antoinette’s is for her two young children’s.  The informed reader (or anyone who is familiar with the history here) may feel a bit uncomfortable knowing what these actions will lead to and how they appear to be folly rather than sound judgment.

“At his age, while he plays he should be singing the nursery rhyme my friend the Duchess of Devonshire taught him…Instead, he dreams of another desperate flight to safety.” p. 324

Grey’s Antoinette is heartbreaking.  She spends much of the book seeking out friends, trying to find any friendly face that can show her some kindness.  Limited to her own perspective, she evokes our compassion.  I found myself dabbing my eyes while sitting in Whole Foods right around chapter twenty-five (you will know when you get there…)

Through all the losses, husband and wife strive to keep their children safe by maintaining a somewhat normal daily life. They continue their education and give them all the love they can.  Perhaps a more apt title for this novel would be Realizations of Marie Antoinette, because she is not truly confessing anything, but she is learning much, and realizing a lot about her past, present and future.

Alfred Elmore, The Tuileries, June 20, 1792. 1860, oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise

Alfred Elmore, “The Tuileries, June 20, 1792.” 1860,

oil on canvas. Musée de la Révolution francaise.

Although Confessions is the third novel in a trilogy about Antoinette, I found it read as a stand-alone story. I have not read the earlier books, although now I am curious to see how Grey’s Antoinette grew as a character over the series.  I have a feeling the first two novels are full of the 18th century court life and etiquette we miss out on in Confessions, so you may want to start there.  Some readers might find the first person present-tense narrative strange if you have not read the previous books.  I found myself struggle a little to connect with Marie Antoinette through the first chapter. However, the author succeeds in giving a voice to this historical figure; she writes with clear passion for the subject and the story moves so fast you fall right into it.

A particularly strong scene is the storming of the Tuileries Palace.  A mob of citizens breaks into the palace seeking out the king and queen. Without time to join each other or come up with a plan, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are each forced to face the mob on their own. They are caught in separate rooms with only their courage to pull them through. With a table separating mother and children from the mob, Grey describes this frightening scene beautifully, full of emotion and descriptive detail.

Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.” Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise

Anonymous, “Marie-Antoinette montant dans la charette.”

Engraving. Musée de la Révolution francaise.

 “I glance down at my trembling hands. ‘God Himself has forsaken me,’ I murmur in reply. ‘I no longer dare to pray.’” p. 334

You may wonder what the point is of reading a book when you already know the ending. I admit I thought this too as I started the book. In a moment of self-amusement I remembered the opening credits of HBO’s The Tudors. “You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.Confessions of Marie Antoinette gives us an alternative and deeper look at this fascinating woman, and the opportunity to walk in her shoes through the French Revolution.

4 out of 5 Stars

Lauren Puzier is an art historian specializing in late 18th century French aristocracy.  Visit her at her blog Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century.

Confessions of Marie Antoinette: A Novel, by Juliet Grey
Ballantine Books (2013)
Trade paperback (441) pages
ISBN 978-0345523907

Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2013; Text Lauren Puzier © 2013, Austenprose.com

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear.

The son and heir Harry, has his own dreams of flying aeroplanes but with the tragic death at Christmastime of a housemaid, those dreams might quickly disintegrate as well. With a house full of guests for the holidays, suspicions are evoked, while expectations and beliefs are shattered. “A sort of crazed idea rattled in his brain, pressed down on his tongue as if it were going to leap out of his mouth. He realized that he was shaking not from cold now, but from the sensation of standing on the edge of a precipice where everything hinged on his next reply.” p. 69. Within months all the family is in London, attempting to move on from the shocking events and discoveries at Rutherford. Louisa Cavendish, the innocent and naïve daughter, is preparing to make her Presentation and seems the most unlikely candidate to engage in a tryst with a mysterious stranger.  Wearied in spirits, Octavia escapes to the country to wallow in her own self-pity, leaving her daughters in the care of friends.

While secrets and fidelity remain in question, William departs for Paris to attend business and settle personal accounts, leaving the family adrift. Meanwhile John Gould, a handsome, rich American houseguest comes to study the history of the Cavendishes and becomes more than a distraction to Octavia. “He hadn’t come to England to fall in love with someone else’s wife. Especially not an unhappy wife. A carefree woman who yearned for a little affair – maybe… maybe he could have happily got himself embroiled for a few weeks, though carelessness with a woman was not his nature. But this. This bloody fever. This was what the English would call it: bloody. And it was.” p. 189

Fast on the heals of other Edwardian England series like T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey and Phillip Rock’s The Greville Family Saga, I was somewhat reluctant to read this latest by Elizabeth Cooke. As much as I enjoyed the aforementioned series, I was skeptical about reading another book seemingly riding the Downton Abbey wave of success. But my concerns were for naught—Rutherford Park: A Novel is an unreservedly, gripping drama. The strained relationship of Lord William and Lady Cavendish are put to the ultimate test while their children scramble to find how they too fit, and the staff and surrounding villages dependent on Rutherford Park toil away with their own struggles. Likening to the inevitability of the WWI rumblings in this epic tale, could this stand-alone novel be the start of a veritable series? My source tells me, yes! Elizabeth Cooke is currently working on a second Rutherford book. A must for your summer reading as Rutherfold Park is a regular stunner!

5 out of 5 Stars

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke
Berkely Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0425262580

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose

Miss Lacey’s Last Fling: A Regency Romance, by Candice Hern – A Review

The Regency Romance Reading Challenge (2013)This is my seventh selection in the Regency Romance Reading Challenge 2013, our celebration of romance author Candice Hern. We will be reading all of her traditional Regencies over the next nine months, discussing her characters, plots and Regency history. Sign-ups for the challenge are now closed but you can still follow along and leave comments. Participants, please leave comments and or links to your reviews for this month in the comment section of this post.

My Review:

To be considered over the hill at age twenty six seems outrageous today, but in Regency times, young ladies married in their mid-teens or became spinsters who cared for their parents and siblings children. Tragically our heroine Rosie, eldest daughter of Sir Edmund Lacey of Wycombe Hall, Devonshire, did not have a choice to marry young and now resides “on the shelf” where Society places ladies who are not deemed marriageable.

Since her mother’s early demise ten years ago, she has quietly raised her five siblings without complaint. Now that they are all settled, and she can think of herself beyond being a substitute nanny/housekeeper/mother, she discovers that she too is afflicted with the same malady that took her mother’s life. With only six months to live she wants to “burst out of her tight laces before it is too late” and experience everything she has been deprived of: a life in London away from her dry as a twig father and overbearing younger sister to discover the delights of Society, the opera, theatre, museums and a bit of scandalous romance too. Who better to introduce her to the life she craves than her notorious Aunt Fanny? Against her families wishes she sets off for Miss Lacey’s Last Fling.

Widow Frances, Lady Parkhurst is not keen to chaperone her priggish, docile, country mouse niece who lands on her Berkeley Square doorstep. Her young friend, the notorious rake Maxwell Davenant, does not think much of her obligation to help her niece and immediately declines any assistance in the endeavor. After eighteen seasons and half of his life spent in pursuit of women, drink and gambling, he is bored to distraction. This dowdy Miss does not interest him in the least. Whatever could Fanny be thinking? The absurdity of Lady Parkhurst being a chaperone to any respectable young lady was however, delightfully intriguing.

Miss Laceys Last Fling, by Candice Hern (c) 2012Rosie arrives all wide eyed and frumpy as expected, but immediately surprises her aunt with the admission that she is not there to entrap a husband—but to see the sights and have a good time. She confides that she has always admired her aunt because she did exactly what she wanted to do, and now she wants to do the same, starting with a complete makeover. She wants to look “sophisticated, worldly and rightly flirt with a rake.” Her surprising honesty wins Lady Parkhurst over and they set their plan in motion: off to the dressmaker for a completely new wardrobe of brightly colored frocks and to the hairdresser to shear off her long locks into a fashionably cropped style.

Her first official social outing is a rout filled with “fresh faced young fops to seasoned rakes to aging roués,” and one jaded Max Davenant who does not recognize the ravishing young lady standing next to Lady Parkhurst receiving all the attention in the room. Rosalind’s nose is still too long and her mouth too wide to be considered a reputed beauty, but she cuts a dashing figure in her new frock and sheared hair style. He is intrigued. Could a man tainted by years of debauchery and seduction be interested in a twenty six year old anti-debutant who has no interest in marriage and just wants to have fun? Heck YES!

After a private conversation with the notorious Max on the terrace, Rosie can now mark flirting with a rake off her list of what she wants to experience. Here’s what’s next:

  • Visit the Tower of London
  • Drive a sporting vehicle
  • Ride in a sedan chair
  • Be thoroughly kissed

Max and Aunt Fanny aid in her headlong fling through London Society scandalizing matrons at Almack’s, sipped gin with the Dandies and Corinthians at the Daffy Club and to gamming hell on Jermyn Street. There is nothing she won’t try when consequences do not signify. Max and Rosie appear to be complete opposites, but are they?

A fun frolic from beginning to end, I have not been so thoroughly entertained in years. I laughed; I cried; and could not put it down. You too will be delighted by Miss Lacey and her unabashedly adventurous spirit. Who could not love a woman who during a time when social decorum and appearances were everything, she throws propriety out the window and turns society on its ear? Hern’s historical research is as impeccable as always, but it is her characterizations that really shine. From the hysterically over-the-top Aunt Fanny (the Aunty Mame of the Regency Ton) and the depraved lost soul of Max Davenant, you will be charmed and enchanted with every scene. Following Rosie, or the transformed Rosalind, on her journey will send you into peals of laughter with her high spirits and outrageous antics. Rosie might have started off as a milk and water miss, but Rosalind is a diamond of the first water!

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Miss Lacey’s Last Fling: A Regency Romance, by Candice Hern
CreateSpace (2012)
Trade paperback (232) pages
ISBN: 978-1479278084

A Grand Giveaway

Author Candice Hern has generously offered one digital or one print copy of Miss Lacey’s Last Fling to one lucky winner. Leave a comment stating what intrigues you about this story, or if you have read it, who your favorite character is by midnight PT, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. Winner to be announced on Thursday, August 01, 2013. Digital copy delivery internationally. Print copy shipped to US addresses. Good luck!

Cover image courtesy of Candice Hern © 2012; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund – A Review

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund (2012)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder

Several months ago I kept hearing a lot of buzz about a book by Diana Peterfreund entitled For Darkness Shows the Stars. Nearly every blogging friend I had seemed to be reading and raving about this novel.  As I did some research on it I discovered that it’s a young adult, sci fi/dystopic version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I was 100% interested. When Laurel Ann suggested I review it for Austenprose, I was at first super excited and simultaneously nervous. What if it didn’t live up to my expectations? Nerves aside, I dove in eager to see how Persuasion translated into a dystopic world.

Many years ago, the scientific over-manipulation of food, animals, and even people resulted in an event known as the Reduction, which set humanity back hundreds of years technologically and socially and ushered in a new nobility that outlawed most forms of technology. Elliot North is a member of this group, and understood that it was not her place to run away with her childhood sweetheart, a slave known as Kai. Now, years later, the world has begun advancing back to its former glory. A new generation is beginning to reignite progress and cause change, and with this comes the stagnation of the old elite. Therefore, Elliot’s estate is forced to rent land to the Cloud Fleet, a mysterious group of shipbuilders, in order to make ends meet. Little does she know that one of these men is Captain Malakai Wentforth, the same man she loved but dutifully left so many years ago, now under a new name. Although she wonders if this may be her second chance at love, Kai does not seem so sure. He also holds a secret which could alter the very course of their humanity for good or otherwise. Will Elliot be able to persuade him to give her a second chance? What will Kai do with his secret?

At first this book moved very slowly in my opinion. It took me a good 70 pages to really become invested in the story and understand the history as to how the world got to be in its present state. The terminology of all the different social classes was confusing at first, as the “racist” terminology that the upper class used was completely separate from how the underprivileged classes spoke. After I understood this, however, the book definitely caught my attention. Elliot is a conundrum of a character, as she’s stuck in this in-between place of fearing how modernization and technological advancement could harm society again, but also seeing how said advancements could help the depressing current state of affairs. She has all these people on her farm that she needs to feed, yet doesn’t have enough money or time to grow enough food. Therefore, she sees what genetically modifying food could potentially do to save hundreds around her. On the opposite spectrum her grandfather is extremely sick, but comes to find out that there are medications and procedures that had they not been outlawed could have prevented his continual deterioration. She’s a revolutionary in her own right, doing everything in her power to help those around her. The inner battle that she experiences for the majority of the book is an understandable one, and one that can be relatable in multiple contexts. She has all these things that she has been taught to fear, yet sees the benefits of certain modifications once Kai and the Cloud Feet people become a part of her life. She learns that not everything has to be a lesson in extremes, that everything doesn’t have to be either one way or another, and that sometimes the hardest sacrifices you have to make yield the best and worthiest results.

One thing that truly surprised me about this book was the characterization of Elliot’s father and Kai. Elliot’s father was extreme and harsh. The events towards the end of the novel and his reaction to certain revelations were frankly shocking. Upon first glance he seemed aloof, but he’s actually very observant and conniving. He knows exactly what buttons to push to get the results he expects. Additionally, I felt similar feelings about Kai. The level of his anger, rudeness, and spitefulness was too extreme in my opinion. At one point he violently grabs Elliot and is unforgivably rude to her. It’s understandable that he is angry over what happened between the two of them four years prior, but it just seemed a tad too much at times.

Upon finishing this book, I read the prequel, Among the Nameless Stars. The prequel delves into Kai’s journey after he leaves the North State but before he returns to it for the events of this novel. It definitely helped me get a better understanding of the emotional turmoil that Kai faced alone. His anger became more understandable, but only slightly. I’d recommend reading the prequel after For Darkness Shows the Stars, as there are things revealed that are better left as surprises.

I truly enjoyed the way that Peterfreund adapted Austen’s work into this dystopic world. It fit surprisingly well, especially the whole idea of differentiating social classes. The small pieces of the novel told in an epistolic fashion made me all the more anxious for the “Wentworth letter” (I can happily tell that you the letter does not disappoint.) Peterfreund has definitely earned a new fan in me, and I’m excited to continue this new series with her as she adapts The Scarlet Pimpernel next. 

Peterfreund’s website describes this series as, “In a distant future, teens work to rebuild their societies in breathtaking adventures inspired by timeless classics.” This series is made up of novels about hope, change, love, and redemption. I can’t think of traits I’d want the current teenage generation to learn more. This is definitely a series I’d recommend sharing.

4 out of 5 stars

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund
Balzer + Bray (2013)
Trade paperback (448) pages
ISBN: 978-0062006158

Cover image courtesy Balzer + Bray © 2012, text Kimberly Denny-Ryder © 2013, Austenprose