Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein
The archetypical figure of the fairy godmother – an imagined mentor with supernatural powers – is an attractive trope because it suggests that certain elements of the unseen universe are rooting for us whether we are aware of it or not. The most popular fairy godmother is arguably the sweet-tempered, grandmother-like figure of Cinderella who swishes her wand to create carriages out of pumpkins and attractive debutantes out of housemaids but she has also appeared in literature as conniving and ruthless (Shrek) or even male and wizardly (Gandalf could be thought of as a “fairy godperson,” couldn’t he?). If you’ve ever imagined a fairy godmother as equal parts scheming and shrewd, unrelenting and witty, in perhaps a bonnet with a quill in hand, then you might be interested in Alyssa Goodnight’s new novel Austentatious in which a certain popular eighteenth-century female novelist takes on the role as modern-day life coach.
With a release date of January 31, 2012, from Kensington Books, Austentatious tells the story of a modern woman living in Austin, Texas who comes across a rather strange and somewhat presumptuous vintage journal that is inexplicably writing her back. Such messages as “Miss Nicola James will be sensible and indulge in a little romance” and one of my favorites, “cleavage is as cleavage does,” quite understandably alarm Nic and she soon begins to believe the little journal is channeling Jane Austen herself. While the idea of a personal life coach who may be Jane Austen is definitely alluring, Nic soon finds Jane’s advice to be distracting and more than a little unnerving because it threatens to upset the life she has spent years trying to build.
An engineer based in Austin, Nic is a steadfast believer in The Plan, a rigid set of life goals meant to help Nic professionally and romantically advance in a sensible manner. When we meet Nic at the beginning of the novel, she is bent on landing a promotion and pursuing a relationship with a similarly-minded work colleague. All seems to be moving in the right direction when a mysterious journal makes its way to her. Instead of quietly accepting and retaining her words, the journal inexplicably erases and rearranges them to leave messages for its owner. Despite feeling hesitant and enormously confused, Nic decides to consider the possibility that the journal may be channeling Jane Austen herself because of the journal’s history and thinks there can be little harm in following its advice until it begins to set things in motion that go against her life’s plan. Enter Sean MacInnes, a warm and charming musician from Scotland who just so happens to think that Nic is the one for him. Much to Nic’s dismay, her journal feels the same way. While struggling to make sense of her experiences, Nic must choose between The Plan or the one life seems to have for her.
As mentioned in her Austenprose blog entry, Goodnight serendipitously came across an actual journal dedication in her research written by Jane Austen to Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen with the hope that her niece would derive some instruction from her writings. Goodnight cleverly uses this as a launching point for her novel’s premise. Additionally, as mentioned in the novel’s afterword, Austentatious is a “(loosely interpreted) modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and part homage to the wit and timelessness of Ms. Jane Austen.” Moreover, and much to my liking, it is also a homage to great literature including a number of witty and funny references to Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings. In fact, one of things I loved about this novel was the writing. Goodnight’s writing is lively, engaging, and enjoyably fast-paced. Austentatious will be of particular interest to those readers looking for something more modern to complement their Austenesque tastes.
4 out of 5 stars
Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight
Kensington Books (2012)
Trade paperback (320) pages
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758278067
Kindle: ASIN: B005JSZOIG
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
Sounds like just the thing as I count the weeks til Spring– and terrific review! I’ll add it to my Reading List.
I think this sounds like it will be a fun read.
Thank you for sharing your review!
I have to ask, Aia: Did it concern you at all that a magic diary, one that writes to the diarist, is a key part of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?
I’m embarrassed to admit this but my brain didn’t make that connection at all. But, of course, now that you bring it up, Tom Riddle’s diary does in fact write back to Harry. I guess the reason I didn’t see a connection immediately is because in “Chamber of Secrets” the diary doesn’t manipulate Harry’s words to communicate messages. It answers Harry’s questions using its own words and really has a mind of its own – has its own agenda completely unrelated to the interests and desires of the diary’s reader, uses intimidation against and possession of its readers (Ginny), etc. The diary in “Austentatious” can only communicate using the words the reader has put down in its pages, doesn’t really answer questions but gives general advice, and it operates more like a cutesy life coach than a villain’s tool.
It is a diary, though, and it is writing back and it seems to be channeling the spirit of a past owner so I do see your point.
I’m curious. Given that you are an author, does this sort of parallel bother you?
Believe it or not, this parallel did not occur to me at all while writing AUSTENTATIOUS. In fact, it was only when I was describing the plot to my sister that she picked up on the similarity. After giving it serious consideration, I decided that I felt that the journal of AUSTENTATIOUS was sufficiently different, for all the reasons that Aia so eloquently outlined above.
(And Jane was never an actual owner of the journal–at least for any length of time–it was a gift to her niece.)
Thanks for the comment, Alyssa! Point taken. Jane bought the diary for her niece so not really accurate to describe her as a past owner.