Epistolary novels were all the rage in the late eighteenth century prior to and during Jane Austen’s early writing career. One does not run across novels written in letters very often today. The fact that characters do not meet face-to-face is restrictive and can be a challenge to readers.
Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom harkens back to Austen’s first epistolary format before she re-wrote Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it a novel written entirely in letters, but it is also told in the first-person by one character—Elizabeth Bennet—and is a variation on Austen’s classic tale. With all of these unconventional restrictions and plot changes, one does not know what to expect. If this complex hook is not enough to get your attention, dear reader, then you are not paying attention.
The story begins with a letter by Elizabeth to her sister Jane from London on Christmas day. It is one month after the ball at Netherfield and Elizabeth is married to Mr. Darcy. Their marriage, however, is not the HEA that we imagined after Austen’s classic tale, but a patched-up business due to a devastating scandal. While walking near a frozen pond, Elizabeth’s misstep lands her in the icy waters. Injured and freezing, Mr. Darcy rescues her and returns her to her family, but not before a local resident witnessed the mishap and is telling a different story. Elizabeth’s reputation is ruined, and Darcy, being an honorable man, agrees to marry her. Neither is happy about the forced marriage, yet agree that they must marry.
So, there is no longer three-quarters of the story that Austen wrote. Just jump straight to Elizabeth as Mistress of Pemberley writing long missives to her Aunt Gardiner and her sister Jane about her miserable existence as the wife of a surly, disagreeable man. That is the big leap-of-faith part for readers in this variation. You will need to disarm reproof and just go with it.
As Elizabeth writes letters to her family, she also recounts events from the correspondence that she has received, so we do know what is happening at home at Longbourn with the Bennet’s and in London with the Gardiners. The author has cleverly placed Easter eggs throughout so that readers can connect to the original story. She has also borrowed quotes from Austen’s personal correspondence, and her other novels to spark our attention. As the winter progresses at Pemberley and turns into spring, Elizabeth and Darcy’s icy behavior toward each other thaws, a nice tie-in to the title. They do come to an understanding and realize their deep love. I will keep you in suspense on how that happens, according to the usual practice of elegant females.
Thaw is a curious exercise in craftsmanship. It took an intrepid writer to attempt this challenging format and a good deal of skill to pull the elements together. However, I craved much more detail about the inciting event that turned this into a variation. What were the specifics on what she and Mr. Darcy were accused of doing by the local gossip and what was Elizabeth’s father Mr. Bennet’s reaction? I felt that our strong Lizzy acquiesced into accepting the forced marriage far too quickly.
Regardless of my objections to the pivoting point of this variation, I recommend moving beyond it and embracing this lovely novella. Traveling along and witnessing the gradual transformation of Elizabeth’s heart was an enjoyable journey. Sjöblom has an understanding and appreciation of Austen that is commendable, and I look forward to reading a full novel in her hand and recommend Thaw as a delightful Austenesque excursion.
4 out of 5 Stars
Thaw, by Anniina Sjöblom
Quills & Quartos Publishing (December 13, 2019)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (136) pages
Cover image courtesy of Quills & Quartos Publishing © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2020, Austenprose.com