From the desk of Katie Patchell
For all its stylistic elegance and its iron-backboned heroine, Mansfield Park is the black sheep of the Jane Austen canon. It’s the book most likely to be placed at the bottom of “Which is your favorite Austen novel?” polls. Public opinion hovers somewhere between “That’s a book by Jane Austen?” and “Gross…cousins marrying.” For many readers, it’s the heroine that’s frustrating. Fanny Price is usually seen as duller than dishwater – her moral compass providing a guide for the plot, but no passion. Even though I’m a staunch fan of Mansfield Park and Fanny’s quiet strength, I can understand why not everyone enjoys it to the level I do. However, the novel’s understated beauty, full cast of characters who are neither fully good or fully bad and Jane Austen’s characteristic humor is all too good to miss. It is this magnetic, complex blend that I eagerly searched for in Jacqueline Firkins’ new Mansfield Park adaptation, Hearts, Strings, and Other Breakable Things.
The book opens with Edie, the heroine (based off of Fanny Price), en route to live with her kind but absent uncle and his unkind and controlling wife (switched around a bit and based off of Mrs. Norris). Edie doesn’t fit in with her two very rich cousins, Maria and Julia, and not just in the financial category. They only care about fashion and kissing hot boys in the neighborhood, while Edie cares about writing music, reading classics, and avoiding romantic entanglements at all costs. Without her mom or best friend by her side, all she has left is her guitar without strings and memories of better times…including one blissful summer spent playing with the adventurous boy next door. Once she arrives at her new home, life becomes way more complicated than she imagined. For starters, that boy next door, Sebastian, is now a (secretly) aspiring author…and still magnetic to Edie. The only problem? He’s already dating someone way out of her league. Henry Crawford, the local handsome but slimy flirt, seems to think he can take turns trying out each of the Price cousins, including Edie. With college application deadlines looming and a mess of drama to contend with, what’s a level-headed, heartsore girl to do?
What I loved about this book is a long list! Chief among them is the writing. I felt connected to Edie every step of the way, more than I’ve felt for a heroine in a while. Her pain over her mom’s death, she struggles to fit in and yet not conform….these things were deftly and beautifully written. Readers expecting this adaptation to be written in the style of Jane Austen will be disappointed, although some characters do occasionally use long, 18th century words. In my opinion, however, because Firkins didn’t aim for replicating the style of Jane Austen’s original (a near-impossible task), she was able to consistently capture its heart. Twists and turns – some like the original, some uniquely different – weave a story that still centers around the main question: Can discovering and staying true to your values help you weather any storm and bring lasting happiness?
Two other plot-points I was really excited about was the redemption of Maria and the explanation of Henry’s motives. Maria is not initially likable (just like her namesake), but Edie finds that family loyalty can surprise one when one least expects it. Henry is still a self-obsessed flirt, but Firkins adds a touch of self-awareness and surprising depth to this character that was fun to see.
The only negative I had with Hearts, Strings, and Other Broken Things was its over-sexualization of teenage life. Whether it’s hated or loved about Fanny Price, her strong moral compass is a part of her character. Seeing her lookalike, Edie, focus a large portion of time on smoldering “staged” make-out sessions and having sexual fantasies of Sebastian was a jarring, out-of-character shift. I suppose one could draw a parallel between whispering behind stage curtains (Henry and Maria – 1800s) and making out in bushes at a party (Henry and Maria – modern-day) based on cultural mores changing…but I’m still a firm believer in romance being a pairing of “the marriage of true minds” with self-control, old-fashioned as it may be.
All in all, Hearts, Strings, and Other Broken Things is a strong Mansfield Park adaptation and a gripping novel in its own right. I recommend it for readers hesitant to try Austen’s original as a way of becoming immersed in the story. For longtime fans of Mansfield Park, check out this novel, highlighter—and tissue box—at the ready!
4 out of 5 Stars
Hearts; Strings, and Other Breakable Things, by Jacqueline Firkins
HMH Books for Young Readers (December 17, 2019)
Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (384) pages
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Cover image courtesy of HMH Books for Young Readers © 2019; text Katie Patchell © 2019, Austenprose.com