Northanger Alibi, by Jenni James – A Review

What qualifies a story as a retelling of a Jane Austen novel? Reverent adherence to Austen’s plot line? Faithful interpretation of characterization?  Emulation of her prose style? I asked myself these questions several times while reading Jenni James’ new novel Northanger Alibi, the first book in her Austen Diaries series of contemporary counterparts to Austen’s six classic novels. At what point does an Austen retelling diverge so far that it is not a retelling at all? And, more importantly, does it really matter? This led me to evaluate my Janeitehood. Am I a Formidable, or an Iconoclastic Austen sequel reader? Honestly, if you can answer these questions immediately, you will know if you want to read this novel or not. I could not decide, so I continued reading.

Claire Hart is a sixteen year old country girl from New Mexico whose never been kissed. Like any teenager she’d like it to be otherwise. She is Twi-hard to the extreme having read the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer numerous times, seen the movies and obsessed over its heroes Edward Cullen and Jacob Black beyond the point of redemption. She is confident that she is now an expert on vampires and werewolves and can spot them on sight. When she and her sister Cassidy are given the chance to travel to Seattle with family friends for a summer holiday she is ecstatic to be near the epicenter of the Twi-world, Forks, Washington. Her trip to the Emerald City takes an interesting turn when she is introduced to Tony Russo, a handsome young man who likes to tease her, is interested in fine fashion, uses the word nice frequently and according to Claire’s first impression is definitely a vampire. Next she meets tall, dark and overbearing Jaden Black who is Quileute, the same local Native American tribe as the Twilight character Jacob and therefore must also be a werewolf. Everything she experiences is seen through the Gothic prism of Twilight characters and she is certain that her deductions are correct. Her sister is skeptical until she too starts reading the addictive novels that Claire has brought along with her. As both of Claire’s new supposedly paranormal male friends vie for her affections, she must learn to distinguish between fiction and reality and to trust her own instincts in matters of the heart.

Northanger Alibi is a charming tale written for a pre-teen audience craving more vampire and werewolf fare after reading the sensationally popular Twilight series. As such, it gently mocks the genre and its obsessive fans while following its heroine in her first experiences with love and romance. The concept of combining Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a parody of the melodramatic Gothic fiction so popular in Austen’s time, with the hugely successful modern Gothic tale Twilight was intriguing to me. The story had a promising beginning and then wanders away from Austen’s classic tale to the author’s unique plot and characterizations. Her hero and heroine do have similarities to Austen’s Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney: she is impressionable, naive and obsessed with Gothic fiction; he teases, likes fashion and the word nice, but beside a few other plot comparisons and character allusions, that is just about as close as it gets to the original. The ending brings us back to some resemblance of Austen’s story, but by then this reader was baffled.

Why am I picking at this funny and exuberant debut novel written by a promising new author you ask? Because of how it has been marketed. “This modern Gothic remake of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, with a nod to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, will leave you in stitches.” The Formidable in me must warn readers who purchase this book because of the Jane Austen connection that they will find very little Abbey in this Northanger. On the other hand, the Iconoclast in me admires the author’s energy and creativity, and blames her editor and publisher for not pointing out the egregious omissions and addressing them. Promoting this book as a retelling of Austen’s novel is misleading. Promoting this book as a Twilight inspired story for pre-teens pairs the author’s creative choices with her target audience. Northanger Alibi is a great concept novel and a fun read for those interested in Twilight, but not the most rewarding fare for the Janeite who is expecting more than a passing resemblance to the original story.

2 out of 5 Regency Stars

Northanger Alibi: The Austen Diaries, by Jenni James
Valor Publishing Group, Orem, Utah
Hardcover, text (310) pages
ISBN: 978-1935546153

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15 thoughts on “Northanger Alibi, by Jenni James – A Review

  1. Wow — how very meta-fiction-esque! A new novel about another novel — a recent, popular teen novel?

    I don’t know how I feel about a Twilight/Northanger pairing. Actually, that’s not true; I know exactly how I feel about it: scared. Sounds like the book should be marketed differently, for sure, and this probably isn’t one I would jump to read.

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  2. I’m not at all interested in vampires, ghosts and monsters actually. And I just can’t understand this contemporary new Gothic taste. Anyhow, I observe and smile at any trend or taste, trying to keep on my way. But mixing Jane Austen with what she mocked and lampooned … ??? Has that got any sense?

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  3. Laurel Ann,

    Wow! Thank you for your review.

    It means a lot to me that you would even read the book, let alone review it.

    I am sorry you did not see any more similarities in the work. I have all along expected to get reamed by austenites, as I am a HUGE Jane Austen fan and have done my own reaming. This book is the least followed of them all. I won’t go into why I felt I had to modernize it and keep her away from the “Gothic abbey house” to get to know the characters more and instead focus on the “Twilight vampires” since the modern reading material forced me to follow that storyline more.

    Ironically, I do feel the only character who stayed completely true to Northanger Abbey in my retelling (and managed to keep the book as close to the original as possible–considering the reading material had changed) was Jaden Black. Lol! I’ve felt all along that he was definitely the most delicious John Thorpe I have ever known. However, that is just my opinion. I do realize we each have our own.

    Thank you again for taking the time and effort to leave a review. I would like to post it on my blog, if i may–with credit to you of course..? Along with two other really awesome reviews I got this week. I’m trying to be as open as possible with my writing career, as there are many writers who read my blog. I would like them to see both points of view.

    And I hope this doesn’t discourage you from reading the rest in the series.

    Jenni James

    PS It was I who did the false advertising, btw. Not my publisher or editor, I will be sure to announce that as well on the blog, as I don’t feel they are to be blamed. I was lucky enough to have my own blurb used for promotional purposes. Forgive me?

    As to the other comments on here…When I went to write Claire’s story (my catherine morland), I was stumped. I had no idea how to rewrite this that all the teens of today could relate to, or understand. I had to have a series of books by an author that was so wildly well known–and banned in places–as Anne Radcliffe was, that would make every girl swoon and understand. So honestly, what other series is so wildly focused on whether good or bad than Twilight? And just for the record, I feel… yes, it’s a satire of any girl who reads and fantasizes too much–but it isn’t about Twilight. It’s about Claire finding herself and growing. In the same sense as the original isn’t about Radcliffe, but about Catherine.

    Oh! And this book is *very* clean, no vampires sleep with Claire! Yikes. Mainly because there are no vampires in the book! lol! But you won’t even find a curse word…

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    • Oh! And this book is *very* clean, no vampires sleep with Claire! Yikes.

      Not sure if you’re talking about my comment, or not, but…I don’t know if you read the incomplete book that Meyer posted on her website, Midnight Sun, which is Twilight from Edward Cullen’s point of view (in other words, Stephenie Meyer is writing her own fan fiction), but in this work we learn that Edward lets himself into Bella’s room every night, without her knowledge or invitation, and watches her sleep. He even oils the sticky window to ease his passage. Creepy stalker ahoy.

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      • I know… I too was shocked at him entering her room every night! So stalkerish! (in twilight later on he does actually climb in bed and hold her every night) Claire’s family has definitely been raised to keep boys out of their rooms. Which you see more in Pride & Popularity, since Claire’s older sister Chloe Elizabeth Hart is my Eliza.

        This book was meant to be the 5th in the series, but because of the twilight connection it’s coming out first. It also strays from the original the most. (The others are pretty accurate retellings.) But it’s because I felt that Northanger Abbey was Jane’s way of plopping Catherine right down in the middle of her very own fantasy Gothic novel.

        To do this, so teens could relate, I couldn’t plop Claire down in the middle of an Anne Radcliffe novel (with a creepy house, and staying with the family etc…), I had to plop her down in the middle of her very own fantasy Twilight trilogy, to keep true to Jane’s original vision.

        So yes, it strays… which is why I feel there haven’t been many (if any) MODERN retellings of this novel… basically because customs have changed and would make it virtually impossible to recreate accurately in a modern setting, with a modern 16 year old girl.

        Lol! And just for the record, I nearly went mad trying to tie it all in and make it work. Definitely the most fun, yet most challenging book I’ve ever written!

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    • Hi Jenni, since you have shared with us that you had to use the storyline from the ‘modern material’ (which one assumes is the Twilight story) instead of using Austen’s Northanger Abbey plot and characterizations, then why are you calling this a retelling of Northanger Abbey and not a retelling of Twilight?

      It would appear to me as a professional bookseller and Janeite that this book was written for the pre-teen and young adult market who are as passionate about Twilight, vampires and werewolves as your heroine Claire and are not reading it because of the Austen connection. Nor do they get enough of Austen’s story to inspire them to read the original novel. Quite the contrary.

      It would have been more honest to readers if you had marketed Northanger Alibi as a “modern Gothic remake of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, with a nod to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey“. Otherwise, it just smacks of carpet bagging. I think you are a promising debut writer, but I can not agree with your defense or the marketing of this book. It will non-the-less be successful for you financially.

      Cheers, Laurel Ann

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  4. This book sounds interesting to me, a Twilight fan who’s not a pre-teen and who loves Jane Austen.

    Also, Mags, your comment made me laugh out loud. Henry Tilney is the ultimate gentleman, isn’t he? ;)

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  5. I do not think this will tempt me, not being a fan of vampires and such. I really appreciate the author’s comments on her work, especially the frankness. Maybe the others in the series will be more to my (or my pre-teen’s daughter’s) liking.

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  6. Over the past fifty years, rightly or wrongly, all sorts of authors have been compared to Austen. Barbara Pym was for some years regarded as her natural successor, although I could never see it myself. But it was felt by many critics, such as those with the NY Times, that Pym had captured the sense of irony which many associate with Austen, particularly in her descriptions of the Bennets parents, for example.

    One the elements of Austen’s greatness is that she can be many things to many people.

    I personally loathed the Keira Knightley production of Pride and Prejudice–I felt it had been Mills and Boonised. It is, to me (a historian) as much a study of society and a micro-society as it is a domestic novel. And I admire it for that reason.

    Having read Ms. James novel, The Northanger Alibi, I felt that she made me look again at the original novel, and made me appreciate it more than I had. And for that I am grateful. Anything that encourages us to re-examine our concepts and firmly held beliefs, challenges us to rethink, is surely a good thing.

    Because you see, I do value Austen for her depiction of life in a small Hampshire village, but I had not considered how greatly she understood character–and a bit like Miss Marple–had seen all the world in her small village of St. Mary Mead.

    And that is the great strength of James’ young adult retelling of Northanger Abbey. To a girl in 1814, The Castle of Otranto was the cult read. Or Belinda (poor things!) Today, it’s the vampire stuff. But human nature hasn’t changed–Jane Austen saw that, knew that, and James deftly and charmingly reminds us, or perhaps our daughters, of that.

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  7. Myself personally, when reading an Austen rewrite I wouldn’t want they same story. There needs to be similarities and differences. If they were exactly the same they would not fit in our contemporary line of thinking.

    From what I’ve seen of Ms. James’s upcoming novel, it doesn’t follow the storyline of twilight. So a rewrite of Twilight would be inappropriate as well. I think she has just moved a storyline to a different era. Therefore it is inevidable that things will not happen exactly as they would in 1814.

    Much like MM Bennetts has said human nature hasn’t changed, but our mental reactions will change as society does.

    Whether or not it were marketed differently, it looks like a fun read and I am looking forward to my copy arriving in the mail.

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