Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornesbos (2011)Review by Aia A. Hussein      

The young bachelor enters a room filled with young ladies, all of whom are eyeing the invitations he holds in his hands, fully conscious that there are not enough invitations for all them.  They straighten their postures and smooth their gowns as their chaperones hold their breaths.  They all listen as the butler recounts the ladies’ accomplishment points from the recent foxhunt expedition and tea party, shares viewer ratings, and explains that a number of them will be eliminated from the competition and sent home.  The bachelor steps forwards and begins to read aloud the names of the young ladies that he has decided will stay.

You’re right in thinking that the above description is of a reality television dating game show but it’s a far cry from anything like ABC’s The Bachelor for the sole reason that it’s not set in the twenty-first or twentieth-century.  In fact, it’s 1812 and Chloe Parker is competing against seven other women for the attention of Mr. Wrightman, heir to the gorgeous Dartworth estate, along with a $100,000 prize.  Thus is the premise of Karen Doornebos’ debut novel Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, which follows a Midwestern, divorced mother with a failing antique letterpress business who decides to participate in a Jane Austen-inspired television documentary only to discover, upon her arrival to the beautiful English countryside, that it has just been transformed into an early nineteenth-century reality dating show.  Rather than return home, Chloe Parker, a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society, decides to trader her cellular phone for a lady’s fan for a chance to snare the handsome Mr. Wrightman and the much-needed prize money.

Chloe decides to do her best and ignore the constant filming, eager to immerse herself in Regency England life.  She is thrilled to discover that she has a chaperone, a maidservant, and her very own collection of Regency gowns.  The excitement soon fades, however, upon discovering that she is not allowed to use deodorant, can only bathe with water once a week, and can do very little without the permission of her chaperone, to name a few.  More importantly, Chloe finds that the rigid social hierarchy of Regency England goes against everything she believes in.  She is appalled by the treatment of her maidservant, Fiona, and other service staff by their so-called social betters and nurses a well-justified hatred for competitor Lady Grace who never fails to point out that Chloe, cast as an American heiress, doesn’t really belong in English high society.  To top it off, Chloe and her chaperone, Mrs. Crescent, both have a serious interest in winning the prize money: with a failing business and a recently promoted ex-husband who wants to increase his custody rights for their daughter, Chloe needs to rebuild herself while Mrs. Crescent is trying to raise enough money for her son’s surgery.

Even being courted by Mr. Wrightman becomes a point of complication – she is, after all, competing with other women for his attention – because she soon begins to have feelings for another man on set – the younger Mr. Wrightman who is not set to inherit anything from his family’s estate.  Not set to inherit anything and, yet, Chloe finds that he has other attractive features – he’s kind and funny and, besides, there’s something odd about the elder Mr. Wrightman even if Chloe can’t quite put her finger on it at first.  Before Chloe can emerge as a real winner, she must figure out what really matters and what kind of person she wants to be in a society so strictly defined by standards that can seem wholly alien to us now as modern readers.

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy put me in mind of Michael Winterbottom’s film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a film-within-a-film that pits eighteenth-century England alongside a twenty-first-century one.  There’s something intriguing about contemporary filmmakers and production crews, with their cellular phones and headsets, moving seamlessly amongst elaborately dressed ladies as they take their tea and politely converse about the weather.  There are numerous texts that transport us back into Regency England, or that stay firmly in the here and now but are obviously inspired by the past, but rarely do we have texts where old world actually coexists with new.  We have an obvious fascination with the past and it’s refreshing to see this fascination manifest itself in creatively modern ways even if we must tread into the world of reality television.  (Although, I’ll be the first to admit, if a reality television dating game show set in Austen’s era actually existed, I would probably watch it.)

This fascination, however, oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with the act of romanticizing and Doornebos is clever enough not to get swept up in the glamour of Regency England without pointing to its downsides as well.  Chloe’s schooling in the ups and downs of life in Regency England is refreshing and a nice counterbalance to all the texts out there that lament modernization at the expense of pretty gowns and strict social decorum.  But Doornebos doesn’t merely point to the lack of deodorant and running water as downsides to that era; strict rules limiting a woman’s mobility and a mock hanging of a young girl, punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, for instance, showcase Regency England’s dark side.  It’s not for nothing that Mr. Wrightman presents invitations during the Elimination Ceremonies for the number of invitations a young woman received during the social season of eighteenth and nineteenth-century England determined which balls she would attend, which young men she would be introduced to, and so forth.  In other words, it determined the very course of her life.

Doornebos’ novel is witty and, most importantly, refreshing but it must be confessed that elements of the plot and some themes are underdeveloped and its twists are predictable.  As stated above, however, it is Doornebos’ first novel and technical weaknesses can easily be forgiven especially in light of its refreshing perspective on a familiar era.  A great escape to the world of ball gowns and breeches, Doornebos gives us a fantasy/reality that will delight those who want a Jane Austen-inspired excursion into Regency England, warts and all.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos
Berkley Trade (2011)
Trade paperback (384) pages
ISBN: 978-0425243824

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2011; text  Aia A. Hussein © 2011, Austenprose.com

Murder Most Persuasive: A Mystery by Tracy Kiely – A Review

Murder Most Persuasive: A Mystery, by Tracy Kiely (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Following in the footsteps of her previous works Murder at Longbourn and Murder on the Bride’s Side, author Tracy Kiely has just released Murder Most Persuasive. Wherein she previously drew plot inspiration from such Jane Austen classics as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, in this new mystery novel she’s set her sights on Austen’s beloved Persuasion, re-imagining the classic tale against a modern backdrop and involving, yet again, her Austen-quoting sleuth, Elizabeth Parker.

After the death of Elizabeth’s great-uncle Martin Reynolds, the Reynolds family house is sold.  Much to everyone’s surprise, the new owners discover the body of a man under their newly dug-up pool who is later identified as Michael Barrow, the former fiancé of Martin’s eldest daughter Regina.  It had been assumed that Michael had run off eight years earlier after embezzling over a million dollars from the Reynolds family business.  The discovery of Michael’s body not only unearths questions about the earlier scandal, but it also brings Detective Joe Muldoon, former boyfriend of Martin’s second daughter Annabel (or Ann), back into the picture.  Eight years earlier, Ann had been pressured by family and a close family friend to break off her relationship with Joe, a decision she has come to bitterly regret.

Emboldened by past detective successes, Elizabeth spearheads a movement to discover Michael’s murderer, an effort that becomes all the more urgent when police begin to treat Ann as their prime suspect.  Making matters worse is Ann’s stepmother Bonnie who bizarrely escapes to a spa retreat as soon as her late husband’s funeral is over and returns with a younger man who claims to be an investor eager to get his hands on Bonnie’s and the girls’ inheritance.  Throw Elizabeth’s know-it-all sister who’s suddenly determined to help with the investigation, the mysterious behavior of her Reynolds cousins, and a boyfriend who is ready for Elizabeth to move in with him into the mix and you’ve got a very complicated situation that Elizabeth is determined to navigate.  All this and, of course, she must gently nudge Ann in Joe’s direction, eager that Ann not make the same past mistakes.  Will Elizabeth locate the murderer before he or she can strike again?  And will Ann gain the confidence and courage she needs in order to pursue a relationship with a man that her family has deemed unworthy?

Ann’s story should recall the story of Austen’s Anne Eliot who is forced to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth because he fails to live up to the expectations of family and close friends.  In fact, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel that Ann Reynolds is the modern-day equivalent to Anne Eliot, an overlooked middle daughter who must learn to trust her own instincts rather than allow others to easily persuade her.  Persuasion’s Anne Eliot has always been one of my favorite Austen heroines and it’s delightful to see a contemporary reincarnation especially since authors tend to gravitate more towards Austen’s arguably most famous heroine, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett.  While I love Lizzy, there is a quiet strength about Anne that I have always found admirable and it’s gratifying to see that quiet strength reborn in a modern Ann.

While Persuasion serves as a source of inspiration for Murder Most Persuasive, most of Kiely’s novel is made up of original material with numerous characters and one or two twists thrown in for good measure.  Like most well-written mystery novels, Murder Most Persuasive is suspenseful and the reader will definitely try and figure out the murder mystery along with Elizabeth.  I, admittedly, think that some of the characters and plot elements could have used more development but this novel is perfect for end-of-summer reading – entertaining, suspenseful, and Austenesque – with Janeites appreciating how Elizabeth always has the right Austen quote for every situation.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

Murder Most Persuasive: A Mystery, by Tracy Kiely
Minotaur Books, NY (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0312699413

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors, by Nava Atlas – A Review

Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Judging by the number of writing guides available in bookstores today, as compared to the number of guides available twenty or thirty years ago, it would seem that there has been an increase in demand for books about writing.  Admittedly, many of these guides are similar in scope and advice although their continued consumption would suggest that they are serving their purpose to some aspiring writers out there.  Imagine, though, a writing guide written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, a detailed account of where they wrote and how often, how they dealt with rejection, and how they juggled their domestic responsibilities with their need to write.  Alas, no such book exists but something close has just been written which will be of interest to aspiring writers as well as readers interested in learning more about their favorite authors.

Nava Atlas, well-known author and illustrator of cookbooks including the highly regarded Vegetariana, presents an intimate glimpse into the writing process of twelve beloved women writers in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors. Drawing from journals, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Atlas organizes the thoughts and advice of twelve successful women authors into eight chapters that specifically address relevant aspects of the writing process such as developing a voice, finding the time to write, and dealing with rejection.  More importantly, she includes chapters of particular significance to some aspiring women writers, such as “The Writer Mother,” which draws from the experiences of women authors who juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and writing.

In Atlas’ words, her book is not merely a “how-to of writing” but, rather, “something that might prove even more valuable – a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers” which includes that of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

Such intimate treasures include Charlotte Brontë’s 1846 query letter to a prospective publisher, excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal where she admits that she, herself, didn’t enjoy stories like Little Women, and a spotlight on Jane Austen’s inner critic which led her to write in a 1815 letter to James Stanier “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”  In addition to well-placed quotes and excerpts from the writings of these twelve classic authors, Atlas, departing from many how-to writing guides, draws from original images and photos to further captivate the interest of the reader.  Such images include one of Steventon, the birthplace of Jane Austen, and a number of author photos, including one of L. M. Montgomery in a wonderful, feathery hat.  Atlas also provides her own commentary which helps gives a sense of overall structure to the book.

There is something to turning to beloved authors for advice about the writing and creative process.  Not content to merely glamorize or romanticize the writing process, which happens all too often in author biographies, Atlas makes a point to highlight the frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies any writing attempt, even attempts by classic authors.  Madeleine L’Engle’s assertion that a rejection letter was “like the rejection of me, myself” will resonate with many writers out there.  Admittedly, Atlas’ ambitious attempt to organize the thoughts and advice of twelve writers undoubtedly means that readers will find themselves sifting through the book to get to the parts about their favorite writers but that’s to be expected.

A small complaint, which Atlas wisely anticipates, is the conspicuous lack of writers who are not either European or of European origins.  Citing that the increased odds against any female of color in the nineteenth century as compared to their white counterparts is what ultimately led to her decision, Atlas fails to realize that these increased odds could have been a point of interest in their own right for contemporary writers and readers.  It is important to note that she does occasionally offer the insights of Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou but they are embedded within blocks of text and easy to miss.

Nevertheless, Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is an absorbing book that will make even those who have never dreamt of pursuing a writing life want to pick up paper and pen (or, more accurately, turn on the computer) and begin a work of their own.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas
Sellers Publishing, Inc. (2011)
Hardcover (176) pages
ISBN: 978-1416206323

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander – A Review

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander (2006)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The intriguing world of nineteenth century Victorian high society, with its ruffled skirts and disciplined social manners, is crossed with the historical suspense novel in And Only to Deceive, the first book in Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily Mysteries series.  In fact, as author Martha O’Connor writes, “Had Jane Austen written The Da Vinci Code, she may well have come up with this elegant novel.”  Lady Emily Ashton, the headstrong heroine, finds herself acting as amateur detective in a mystery that takes her to the quiet corners of the British Museum, where she uncovers an art forgery plot involving artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries, and the shadowy streets of Paris where a possible murder only complicates matters.  All while being pursued by two very prominent and handsome suitors, of course.

When Viscount Philip Ashton unexpectedly dies in an African hunting expedition, his young and beautiful wife, Lady Emily Ashton, finds herself a widow after only a few short months of marriage.  Eager to discover the sort of man her late husband was, Emily pursues his interests in classical antiquity and finds a man much more interesting and mysterious than she had initially thought.  More than that, however, she finds evidence to suggest that her husband may not have been as honest as she thought, uncovering a complicated plot of art forgeries involving some of the best artifacts exhibited in the British Museum.  Compounding the mystery are the two friends of the late Viscount – Mr. Colin Greaves and the son of a Lord, Andrew Palmer – who both seem to show mysteriously equal interest in both Emily and her surprisingly authentic collection of classical antiquities.

With the help of a colorful mix of female friends – who, when considered together, exhibit the right combination of intelligence, spunk, and timidity – Emily sets out to get to the bottom of the forgeries whilst also happening upon the unpleasant discovery that her late husband’s death may not have been accidental.  Unable to ascertain if she can trust the attentive Hargreaves or the charming Palmer, Emily moves forward to uncover the mystery on her own, attempting to prove to herself and to all those around her – particularly her domineering, overprotective mother – that she is capable of existing in nineteenth century Victorian England as a person in her own right.

Alexander’s first novel shows her promise, with an attention to historical detail that will only impress her readers.  Interspersing historically correct detail of Greek antiquity with accurate portrayals of societal roles in late Victorian England, Alexander creates a novel that is every bit as layered as it is entertaining. The best thing about the novel is its female characters.  Rarely straying into archetype or tired stock characters, Alexander breathes life into charismatic, intelligent females who are fully-formed and varied.  Emily’s older, Parisian friend, Cecile du Lac, happily enjoys her widowhood status as it frees her to explore the shadowy corners of Paris without too much notice.  Emily’s intellectual, American friend, Margaret, encourages Emily’s interests in classical antiquity and pushes her to attend university lectures, much to the dismay of Emily’s mother.  And, lastly, Emily’s fellow English friend, Ivy, prefers a quiet rebellion, choosing to act at home rather than on a more public scale.  Through the complexity of its female characters, the novel distinguishes itself from the countless number of modern-day reimaginings of Victorian England.

Alexander, in the novel’s afterword, points out the importance of creating a character that was both part and outside of her society.  As an unmarried woman, Emily would have been subject to Victorian society’s repressive rules concerning the appropriate interests and activities of a young woman and, consequently, Alexander had no choice but to imagine as her heroine a widow, a female figure of society with enough freedom to be able to travel and pursue interests with little consternation.  Through these sort of details, Alexander is able to create a sympathetic character for the modern-day reader who is, nevertheless, still very much a part of her era.

An admirable debut novel, And Only to Deceive is engaging and entertaining although, admittedly, some of its plot twists are predictable.  Nevertheless, the next book in the series, A Poisoned Season, also featuring Lady Emily Ashton, will undoubtedly be entertaining.  And while, strictly speaking, Jane Austen does not belong to the Victorian era, there is enough overlap for this book to be recommended to those who find this general time period of interest.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, where she pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander
HarperCollins (2006)
Trade paperback (336)
ISBN: 978-0061148446

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose