Best-selling author of Austenland, and soon to be motion picture of same, Shannon Hale, takes us on another retreat to England in her latest offering, Midnight in Austenland.
When the nice American Charlotte Kinder married a nice man named James in a nice wedding, later giving birth to and raising two nice children, it surprised everyone when she started her own web-based company and was also discovered to be a clever, successful business woman. Her picture perfect world soon turns topsy-turvy when her husband divorces her for another. One particularly “thin and drab” weekend when the children are away with their father, she finds temporary solace, and even heart pounding sensations long forgotten, while reading Jane Austen’s masterpieces. Seeking further escape from her non-fiction life, Charlotte flies to England in retreat to a country manor house catering to the total immersion of a Jane Austen experience,
“Pembroke Park, Kent England. Enter our doors as a houseguest come to stay two weeks, enjoying the country manners and hospitality—a visit, a dance or two, a turn in the park, an unexpected meeting with a certain gentleman, all culminating with a ball and perhaps something more…” (12)
No one would suspect that Charlotte Kinder was about to become the heroine of her own life.
After completing a questionnaire declaring Pride and Prejudice her favorite novel, but also a particular enjoyment in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, Charlotte’s total immersion Austen vacation seems tailored specific to her whims and desires, complete with an affectionate brother, a jovial Colonel and even her own brooding handsome gentleman of mystery. Although she is fully aware that everyone is playing a role, including herself, the lines between reality and fiction quickly become gossamer thin. But when a spontaneous hide-n-seek like game called Bloody Murder is suggested, Pembroke Park’s promise of a possible flirtation is not what initiates Charlotte’s heart to pound.
“Lightning filled the window, piercing the room with an X-ray flash. And she saw. It seemed to be… it couldn’t be but it sure looked like… a hand.” (91)
Obvious parallels to Northanger Abbey leave Charlotte questioning her own sanity as she attempts to accept the fantasy and play along. Because what could be wrong with a little, harmless flirtation? But is all of this intrigue and horror real or just part of the story line?
Shannon Hale does a capital job of weaving an intricate web of Charlotte’s past realities with her current situation (or is it imaginings?) at the Park. Each new chapter begins with a memory or instance of her former self before stepping into this make-believe Regency England, endearing to Charlotte’s real life anxiety and disappointments from almost the beginning. Charlotte’s journey from sad, cuckolded creature to a strong, vibrant Incomparable is heart warming and enchanting. I was cheering as she finally opened her eyes to all she is and what she had not seen in her marriage. So was the mystery and romance she experienced at Pembroke Park real? I would not tell you for the world. But let’s just say Midnight in Austenland left me with a happy heart and wondering where do I make a reservation? Perfect escape for the blahs of winter, I totally accepted this blatantly contrived happy ending—because we all know, happy endings were one of Jane Austen’s specialties.
4 out of 5 Stars
Cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury USA © 2012; text Christina Boyd © 2012, Austenprose.com