Recently I pulled Pemberley, or Pride and Prejudice Continued, by Emma Tennant off my bookshelf. I was feeling nostalgic after looking at my “to be read” pile of new Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice retellings that have or will hit bookstores this year. It was one of the first P&P inspired novels that I read way back in 2002. Published in 1993, the author was forging virgin territory. At this point there were very few Austen-inspired books in print and readers did not know what to expect. It received a tepid reception from critics and the public. One recent Amazon reviewer called it “a real nightmare.” Ouch! You can read my detailed review of Pemberley from 2013, or read it and decide for yourself.
Since Tennant’s Austenesque-trek to boldly go where no author dared to go, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of Pride and Prejudice prequels, sequels, continuations, and inspired-by books. Recently we are in a retelling cycle—all presented with an ethnic twist. Last year we had Pride, by Ibi Zoboi, a contemporary retelling of Austen’s classic hate/love romance set in Brooklyn, NY featuring an all-black cast of characters. This year we have three new novels: Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal set in 2000 in Pakistan; Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin in which Darcy and Lizzy are transported to contemporary Canada featuring Muslim characters; and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, which after this long and winding introduction is the book I will discuss today.
Another contemporary retelling, PPAOF is set in the “bay area” of San Francisco, California. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s spikey romance where the roles of the rich, proud Fitzwilliam Darcy and the much-less-rich, prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet are reversed. Meet Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant thirty-something neurosurgeon specializing in cutting-edge microsurgery at a prominent hospital, who also happens to be an Indian Princess by default. Her father was the second son of the royal line of an Indian Principality which is no longer in power. When he immigrated to the US, his wealth and royal mien came with him. At the premature death of his older brother, he became HRM in name only. The family live like royalty in their Woodside estate with multiple servants and the exotic air of old-world nobility with all its privileges and baggage. Even though Trisha is a successful and highly prestigious doctor she is a disappointment to her parents, who cannot forgive her for a fifteen-year-old social faux pas against her brother, a rising Politician, and, the fact that she remains unmarried.
Trisha’s counterpart in this Pride and Prejudice switch-up is DJ “Darcy” Caine, who portrays the Elizabeth Bennet role. Their meet-cute happens in the family kitchen while he is catering her parent’s lavish party at their equally lavish mansion. Late for the party, she wanders into the kitchen in search of food after missing the main course. She enters his sanctum and disrupts his dessert preparations. Not a good first impression for either of them. Their spikey verbal sparring is the beginning of an un-friendship that will loosely follow Jane Austen’s classic story. By coincidence, his younger sister Emma is a patient of Trisha’s who is in need of risky brain surgery before she goes blind. DJ is rather dark and bitter, something that I would have never thought of the original Elizabeth Bennet, who Austen described in a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1813 as:
“I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”
Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors excels as a contemporary exploration of Indian culture in America. It is immersive and entertaining. Watching the family dynamics unfold was fascinating, and the description of food was mouth-watering too. Dev’s revamped plot was at times refreshing and at other times stilted. There is an event around the Julia Wickham character that I will not spoil that I found troubling. It was meant to shock as much as when Austen’s George Wickham attempted to elope with fifteen-year-old Georgiana Darcy in 1813. It does, and then some. How the characters react to this bad behavior was even more disturbing to me.
This novel could have stood alone without the interjection of Jane Austen’s characters and plot and been a success. It was creative, moving, and compelling. In the context of being a Pride and Prejudice retelling, I continually struggled with the gender/personality swapping and characterizations of the two main characters. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet is spirited and outspoken; her Fitzwilliam Darcy is arrogant and reserved. Neither of Dev’s interpretations fulfilled this legacy for me. Both Elizabeth and Darcy’s character arcs are what makes the original so moving and memorable. They both realize their mistakes, grow from the experience, and fall in love. Unfortunately, I never believed that Dev’s characterizations of the original should end up as a couple.
Austen thought Pride and Prejudice, “too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade.” Pride, Prejudice. and Other Flavors adds in the shade, making this modern retelling acutely current. I commend Dev for introducing issues that we are faced with today. However, fracturing fairytales is a tricky business and some dyed-in-the-wool Janeites will be disappointed in the freedoms that this story takes while other readers will be delighted with this culturally rich, modernization of a classic.
4 out of 5 Stars
Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors: A Novel, by Sonali Dev
William Morrow (2019)
Trade paperback, eBook and audiobook (496) pages
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.”
Cover image courtesy of William Morrow Books © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com