Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith – A Review

Emma Alexander McCall Smith 2015 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

Two years ago The Austen Project launched their first reimagined Jane Austen novel in the series, Sense and Sensibility (by Joanna Trollope), that has so far included Northanger Abbey (by Val McDermid), and the most recent, published in April of this year—Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith. Heralded as ‘Jane Austen—Reimagined,’ each successive book has gathered mixed reviews, yet also a wide readership, as many fans of Jane Austen’s beloved classics look forward to finding out (with anticipation or trepidation) how each of Austen’s six novels have been modernized.

While I’ve enjoyed reading each of The Austen Project books so far, there’s a common issue faced in each of them, one that should be addressed in reviews and even everyday conversation. This issue is: How much can be modernized in any classic update without detracting from the original book? It’s always difficult to decide, as a reader and I’m sure as an author, what can be updated and altered for the 21st century, and what has to stay the same in order for the story to honor the original (and author’s intent). For instance, there are some things—such as views on love, sex, and marriage—that have been updated in this version of Emma to fit the author’s modern beliefs, which do not fit with the original Emma’s written views on these issues or Jane Austen’s beliefs. Some things hold true throughout the centuries, and sometimes removing these in a modern interpretation of a classic significantly takes away from the integrity and meaning of the story. Some of the differences found in this modernization include: Miss Taylor initially moves in with Mr. Weston before their marriage, Emma casually calls her dad ‘Pops’ all the time, Isabella Woodhouse and John Knightley are expecting twins before saying ‘I do,’ and Emma wonders if she’s attracted to females while painting Harriet in the nude. Continue reading

Pride, Prejudice and Secrets by C. P. Odom – A Review

Pride Prejudice and Secrets Odom 2014 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder

Last year I had the pleasure of being introduced to Jane Austen fan fiction author C. P. Odom via his novel Consequences. His writing invoked deep feelings, as he was able to draw me in completely to his story. He had me fully enveloped in his characters and their lives, which resulted in Consequences being one of my favorite reads of 2014. When I heard about his latest “what-if” novel, Pride, Prejudice and Secrets, I immediately began searching for a way to receive a review copy.

Secrets tells the tale of our beloved Lizzie and Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, although it’s Elizabeth now instead of Jane who falls ill in an untimely manner. Darcy has just worked up the courage to deliver an ill-conceived and prideful offer of marriage, and Elizabeth, still in a haze and unsteady from sickness, accepts his offer. When she fully recovers from her ailments, however, she is mortified to learn that she is betrothed to “the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” Not only this, but all of society has become accustomed to the prospect, so for her to break off said engagement would be the equivalent of social banishment, not to mention the effect it would have on her unmarried sisters. How, then, is she to avoid this unfortunate misunderstanding and escape with her and Darcy’s pride unharmed? She has to use every ounce of her sharp wit and captivating personality to pull off this accomplishment. Will she be forced to remain with Darcy or will she be able to extract herself with her reputation intact? Continue reading

The Unexpected Earl, by Philippa Jane Keyworth – A Review 

The Unexpected Earl , by Philippa Jane Keyworth (2014)From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

Imagine the scene: A woman and man meet in the entryway to a glittering ballroom—full of dancing couples, flickering candles, and the faraway strains of violins. The couple locks eyes, and with that meaningful, tension-filled glance, the man bends down and kisses the woman’s glove.

This seems to be the opening scene of a promising new romance, does it not? But this is not truly the beginning of a romance, but the finale that is six long years overdue. Or is it? In The Unexpected Earl, Philippa Jane Keyworth’s latest Regency novel, readers discover a story of second chances, romantic entanglements, and the rediscovery of true love that is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, Persuasion.

Julia Rotherham is prepared to play the various roles of wallflower, dutiful sister, and old maid at her beautiful younger sister’s coming-out ball. Everything goes according to plan until she comes face to face with the one man she hates with every fiber of her being, the man she’s spent every day for the past six years trying to forget: Lucius Wolversley. Six years ago Julia had given him her heart and accepted his offer of marriage, but shortly afterwards he had broken off the engagement without an explanation and disappeared from her life, breaking her heart and destroying her dreams in the process. Continue reading

A Fair Prospect: Disappointed Hopes, A Tale of Elizabeth and Darcy, Volume I, by Cassandra Grafton – A Review

A Fair Prospect: Disappointed Hopes, Vol I by Cassandra Grafton 2013 From the desk of Kimberly Denny Ryder:

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of open-ended endings in movies and books. Just ask my husband, who has seen me yell after reading a book or seeing a movie that ends with the reader/viewer not knowing what has happened to the main characters. One example that comes to mind is Pride and Prejudice itself! I’ve always wondered what happened after the wedding (maybe that’s why I read so many Pride and Prejudice sequels!) So, when I heard that A Fair Prospect: Disappointed Hopes by Cassandra Grafton was actually the first in a three-part series and it wouldn’t actually have a proper ending, I was a bit skeptical.

In volume I of the A Fair Prospect trilogy, Disappointed Hopes, we find Fitzwilliam Darcy back in London after his failed engagement proposal to Elizabeth, obviously upset by her refusal of such a beneficial match. Elizabeth, on the other hand, finds herself on the way to London, the result of a request by an old family friend to meet in town. Already emotional after her encounter with Darcy, she finds comfort when finally reaching London and meeting this friend, Nicholas Harington. The son of a wealthy family not unlike the Darcy family in both holdings and standing, Nicholas’ family provides a formidable opponent to Darcy’s in the matters of Elizabeth’s heart. Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths cross unexpectedly in London when Bingley begins courting Jane again. Darcy is introduced to Harington, who seems by all to be the perfect suitor for Elizabeth now that Darcy has failed. Or, has he? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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