From the desk of Ruth Anderson:
Jane Austen’s unparalleled wit, biting social commentary, and sharply-drawn characters have transformed works that were once private scribblings, shared only with family, to classics beloved the world over. For the spinster daughter of a clergyman, Jane Austen’s work has proven to have a remarkable staying power, the unforgettable characters and storylines having been indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness, giving rise to a wide array of interpretations – from stage plays to films – as well as sequels or spin-offs. When I was approached with the opportunity to review Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions, I was simultaneously intrigued and wary, as it promised to address the creation of two of my most beloved characters in all of literature – Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.
Happily, Lovett’s charming sophomore effort won me over on all counts. This is both a loving homage to the enduring power and appeal of Austen’s stories and the passion that her works inspire, but the power of story. Bibliophiles of the type featured within these pages such as Lovett’s heroine Sophie are uniquely wired to grasp the inherent power and potential of words, and of how stories can forge connections across time and experience, knitting together authors and those who love their words in a community of common ground birthed from the shared reading experience, no matter how varied the respective interpretation.
First Impressions is a dual-narrative, a difficult feat to pull off successfully in my reading experience. In these cases, typically one half of the story thread resonates more strongly than the other, but here Lovett proves equally adept at balancing his contemporary narrative with the historical thread. The historical portion of the novel introduces a young Jane Austen, circa 1796, deep in the first draft of Elinor and Marianne, the epistolary novel that would serve as the genesis for Sense and Sensibility. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Richard Mansfield, an elderly and retired clergyman whom she is shocked to discover shares her passion for novels. Despite the wide disparity in their age and experience, Jane and the reverend prove to be a meeting of remarkably like minds from which a fast friendship is born. This friendship and the trust that comes to underscore their every interaction transforms Jane’s life as Reverend Mansfield becomes the staunchest support of Jane’s writing efforts (outside of her family). When Jane confesses a secret shame to her friend and mentor, a story called “First Impressions” is birthed from their joint project of reconciliation and redemption – the genesis of a love story between one Elizabeth Bennet and one Fitzwilliam Darcy.
The contemporary thread of the novel tells the story of Sophie Collingwood, a lifelong book lover, and recent Oxford graduate, facing the daunting task of deciding what to do with the rest of her life post-studies. A self-described outsider in her family, as a child Sophie found a kindred spirit in her Uncle Bertram, a bright spot of imagination in her less-than-bookishly inclined family. Bertram taught Sophie to love books and to savor both the experience of reading and collecting cherished favorites. When tragedy strikes, Sophie finds herself heir to Bertram’s legacy determines to solve the mystery of his death. Armed with extensive knowledge of books both rare and classic, Sophie embarks on a career in bookselling, marrying her passion for the printed word with her need for both work and an outlet for her grief – and the ever-growing certainty that her uncle’s passing had something to do with his book collection.
Potential suitors are introduced – one of the prickly-but-honorable Darcy variety and one a slick customer in an appealing, hard to deny package reminiscent of Wickham or Willoughby. Sophie’s romantic options prove inextricably entangled in a shocking discovery that could set the literary world on fire and upend a multimedia empire built on Austen’s legacy. When she discovers indications that Austen may have stolen the story concept that would become Pride and Prejudice from an unknown clergyman named Mansfield, she’s devastated by the implication and determined to prove her literary idol’s innocence. But this bombshell proves to be more dangerous than simply threatening the hearts of Austen’s legions of fans – this is a literary coup that someone feels is worth killing for to acquire.
Sophie’s increasingly dangerous quest to prove the provenance of Austen’s work is seamlessly woven alternating chapters detailing Austen’s progression to full-fledged, published author and the indelible impact her friendship with Mansfield had on her life. As a mystery, First Impressions is a gently paced one, perfectly tailored to appeal to fans of classic cozy mysteries such as Agatha Christie – the types of works that are as endlessly in demand as Masterpiece Theater adaptations as Austen’s own tales. But more than any mystery or love story that unfolds within these pages, Lovett has crafted a tale that pays tribute to a bibliophile’s love affair with the written word. Sophie and Jane’s experiences, separated by centuries, are tied together by a single common thread – the power of story to transcend barriers of age, class, and experience to enrich, empower, and transform. First Impressions is a wholly charming, fresh look at old and familiar literary friends, and Lovett is an author I’m thrilled to have met via these pages.
4 out of 5 Stars
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett
Viking (Penguin Group USA) 2014
Hardcover and eBook (320) pages
Cover image courtesy of Viking Adult © 2014; text Charlie Lovett © 2014, Austenprose.com
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.”