From the desk of Debbie Brown:
This is one of those books that completely took me by surprise. I’m still gobsmacked by it. Do NOT be put off by the fact that the first part of the story — well, actually, the whole book — is centered squarely on George Wickham. Please trust me. It works.
The book’s Prologue tugs at your heartstrings, introducing George at age ten. His mother is a neglectful drug addict and he doesn’t even know who his father is; Rebecca Wickham has had several boyfriends, and Mark, the guy she’s currently living with, is better than most only because he doesn’t beat them. George has just one set of clothes, and he’s always hungry. He gets bullied at school. He can read, but not very well. With such a start in life, there doesn’t seem to be much of a future ahead for him.
But little eight-year-old Lizzy Bennet approaches him on a playground bench, offers him a sandwich, and unconsciously introduces him to the perfect escape from his miserable life by reading aloud a Harry Potter book. “[H]e wished she didn’t have to go. It was like coming out of a dream somehow, to close the book and go back to real life. He felt let down. Going home, going to bed, lying there hungry… how could he go back to that now that he had been on a train to magic school?” It’s a game-changer for George.
The story continues. The two friends are separated, but George’s situation improves thanks to Mr. Darcy (senior). Fitzwilliam Darcy eventually turns up in the book a couple of years later. His entrance is an inspired twist, and I hope other reviewers are kind enough not to spoil the surprise.
More time passes, with Will becoming COO of his father’s company, AirVA, which is a national air ventilation system corporation based in Virginia. Anyway, when Will’s father and mother are in a car crash, Mr. Darcy’s injuries and subsequent rehab require Will to step up as CEO years before originally planned. It’s a difficult transition for an introverted, insecure young man. Everyone seems to want a piece of him — both in business and in his social life.
The plot gets into recognizable Pride and Prejudice territory with Will reluctantly attending Charles Bingley’s engagement party, hugging the periphery, and resisting his friend’s suggestion that he enter into the spirit of things. When Charles offers to introduce Will to Jane Gardiner’s sister Elizabeth, we just know what’s coming. As expected, Elizabeth overhears him say, “Charlie, leave off. I have no interest in dancing with whatever floozy you’re trying to throw at me this time.” …aaand we’re off!
Will’s negative impression persists when he learns Elizabeth just lost her job and her apartment, and now she’s mooching off her sister Jane. He becomes concerned about Charles. Clearly, both sisters must be out to find rich husbands. A pre-nup agreement would be prudent — and it’s customary in their circle with such a mismatch of fortunes.
I enjoyed the evolution of the relationship between Will and Elizabeth. There’s a good balance of romance and humor with building tension as the reader starts to anticipate what’s probably going to cause a blowup between them.
Some great stuff gets packed in here. For a while, I was thinking perhaps the book was winding down and leading up to its inevitable conclusion. But an intriguing mystery suddenly emerges that threatens both Will’s job and plans for a new homeless shelter, leading Will and Elizabeth to chase down relevant clues from George’s early troubled years.
The storyline doesn’t parallel P&P throughout, though it retains plenty of the classic’s essential elements. It also points a large spotlight on the plight of homeless children and how books can be a positive influence in their lives. The cruelty of kids (including Richard Fitzwilliam) to children who are “different” is (sadly) portrayed realistically. And George may have been ignored by his mother, but we also glimpse another miserable childhood — this one due to marital battles resulting in one parent abdicating parental responsibilities to a verbally abusive one.
Aside from George Wickham, generally the characters are true to what I’d expect from Jane Austen’s in these situations. The sole exception is Caroline Bingley. For once, this is a Darcy who isn’t gentle about discouraging her. Repeatedly. Caroline seems nasty and narcissistic, not stupid or apt to willingly subject herself to frequent rejection, so it doesn’t seem logical that she never backs off.
Otherwise, the various plot pieces all fit together beautifully and lead to an uplifting conclusion. I believe this is a debut publication for Ms. Courtney, and it’s a stunner.
5 out of 5 Stars
A Good Name: A Modern Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Sarah Courtney
Independently published (2019)
Trade paperback & eBook (312) pages
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Cover image courtesy of Sarah Courtney © 2019; text Debbie Brown © 2019, Austenprose.com