From the desk of Sophia Rose:
The oft-forgotten of the five Bennet sisters who may have been a reader’s source of amusement or irritation, engendered pity or magnanimous sympathy comes endearingly alive in Janice Hadlow’s gentle opus to Mary, the other sister who must follow a very different path to happiness.
The Other Bennet Sister opens when Mary Bennet is a young girl happy and content with herself and her life until slowly, she becomes aware of a miserable truth. She’s plain and unattractive. Jane the pretty sister and Lizzy the witty favorite of their father’s pair off as they all get older, her father is entrenched in his library sanctum, and her mother laments Mary’s looks and hurls painful remarks to her and about her. Even her younger sisters take their cue from this to draw together and tease her when they do notice her. Mary searches for ways to please and be noticed though she works hard to avoid her mother who twits her on her looks or quiet manners.
In short, Mary is miserable and is willing to try anything even securing the interest of the bumbling and bothersome cousin Collins who has come to Longbourn in search of a wife. If she thought her homelife was misery, being overlooked by Mr. Collins even after she put her best foot forward and made a horrid spectacle of herself at the Netherfield Ball teaches her that being invisible is even worse.
Her sisters’ triumphs in being wed, a family death, and feeling at a loss sends Mary on a journey of self-discovery.
The Other Bennet Sister worked hard to be true to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Mary’s childhood and her debut on society along with the story flowing on parallel lines fit hand in glove with the P&P story. It had a broodier Jane Eyre feel to it, but this works since it is Mary’s story. It was intriguing to see that by focusing on Mary the author shows all the familiar characters in a slightly different light. Some even get more of a stronger role like Mrs. Hill the Longbourn housekeeper who has a soft spot for neglected Mary and by Charlotte Lucas who sees Mary as sharing a similar personality and needs since they are both plain. I will offer the warning that the usual sparkling favorite characters in Pride and Prejudice to not always appear in a favorable light so be prepared to see a different interpretation to many familiar characters.
Wisely, the author doesn’t try to alter who and what Mary is. She took all that quiet, brooding awkwardness and gave us a heroine to which many an introverted bookworm can relate. Mary’s whole life is a journey of discovery and self-discovery and it can be painful to observe at times particularly in the beginning. Mary has little confidence and average looks and skills. She’s rather an Eeyore as a result, but her determination to not shrivel up and die—to find herself and find her place in the world had me seeing this quiet, miserable creature as quite the amazing heroine in her own way.
A strong theme in this three-part book is Happiness. In part one, Mary is told by Charlotte Lucas that ‘happiness is a matter of chance’. In part two, Mary is told by a surprising source that ‘happiness is a matter of choice’. But, it is in part three that Mary puts her impressive intellect to the matter and studies out personal happiness by first observing the joyful and fulsome Gardiner household where they made their own happiness and also encounters someone who forces her to open her heart once again.
“They did not consider happiness a matter of chance or destiny. Instead they did everything in their power to cultivate it… The result was the happiest home Mary had ever known.” (241)
This book is not only a personal journey to discover happiness, but also love. With the first two parts, Mary learns more about what romantic love isn’t and feels the sting of longing. It is only in the final section, when she is ready, that the chance for love comes her way. It was a long, stretched out story at this point and I might have even been satisfied to see it end with Mary coming to the Gardiners where she was appreciated just as she was and this caused her to flourish for the first time, but the author gave Mary a heartwarming and sweet friends romance that I was rooting for all the way. Of course, it wasn’t easy, and she had to make mistakes as well as triumph over a few foes, but that made it worth it.
In summary, this was a lush, full introspective tale of a young woman who found her own way to happiness and love as told in a way that honored Austen’s work while forging its own original, engaging path.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Other Bennet Sister: A Novel, by Janice Hadlow
Henry Holt and Co. (March 31, 2020)
Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (480) pages
Cover image courtesy of Publisher’s Name © 2020; text Reviewers Name © 2020, Austenprose.com