Book Reviews, Jane Austen Contemporary Inspired Book Reviews

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill – A Review

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill (2012)From the desk of Lucy Warriner

How could Pride and Prejudice be adapted to reflect the reality realevision craze? Those intrigued by this question may consult Imperfect Bliss, a comedic examination of class and celebrity by Susan Fales-Hill. The escapades of the Harcourt family of Maryland will keep readers turning the pages.

To her chagrin, recent divorcee Bliss Harcourt is once again living with her parents. She cares for her young daughter Bella, pursues her doctorate at Georgetown University, and laments the antics of her mother and two younger sisters. Harcourt matriarch Forsythia is obsessed with emulating British royalty and suppressing her Jamaican heritage. Second-youngest daughter Diana is starring in The Virgin, a reality show chronicling her quest for a husband. Upset because she is not featured on the program, youngest child Charlotte is living for attention from the opposite sex. In comparison with these three, Bliss’s father and eldest sister are paragons of sanity. Harold, an English transplant, buries himself in scholarly pursuits and tolerates no one except Bliss, his favorite child, and Victoria, his firstborn. Celebrated for her beauty and composure, Victoria hides deep concern over her inability to love the men she dates.

The Virgin disgusts Bliss, as does its womanizing creator Dario Fuentes. But while Bliss berates Dario, Bella takes to him immediately. For a “bodybuilder-boardwalk Romeo,” Dario is surprisingly sensitive to the child’s diplegia, a condition that hinders her walking (30). Bliss and Dario clash repeatedly, first over his familiarity with Bella and then over Bliss’s certainty that he is a chauvinist opportunist. What will Bliss do if she learns there is more to Dario than meets the eye? Meanwhile, Diana settles on the three suitors who can offer her the most fortune and notoriety. But how can any of them please her when she always wants more? At the same time, a video of one of Charlotte’s trysts comes to light. Will it give her her long-desired taste of fame? Finally, pressured by Forsythia, Victoria agrees to marry a wealthy ex-boyfriend she doesn’t love. Miserable, she seeks support from Bliss and from an old school friend who is disillusioned with men in general. Will Victoria muster the courage to find her own happiness?

Fales-Hill’s depiction of Bella is a bright spot in Imperfect Bliss.Bella is a charmingly regular little girl. Readers first glimpse her in her mother’s room, surrounded by pictures of civil rights advocates but completely focused on her Cinderella gown. Though she doesn’t resist Bliss’s lessons about women’s strength and independence, Bella remains enthralled with Barbie dolls and Disney characters. That said, she is also what her mother calls a “little toughie” (3). Bella’s diplegia doesn’t discourage her. She picks herself up when she falls and is unafraid to try dancing and ice skating. Satisfyingly, Bella’s sense of wonder and trusting nature sometimes wear off on Bliss, who can be cynical and judgmental. While in Vienna, the two spend time enjoying sugary treats, marveling at the snowfall, and taking a carriage ride with Dario.

Fales-Hill also deserves credit for adding nuance to Forsythia, who often veers toward caricature. One the one hand, Forsythia is a woman who, to gain prestige, named all her children after English princesses and queens. She is devotee of wigs, false eyelashes with rhinestones, and anything else that will help her daughters attract wealthy men. On the other hand, Forsythia is a hardened survivor of years of racial prejudice. She grew up in British-ruled Jamaica, where she was called “Chocolate drop, black bird, [and] tar baby” and was likely familiar with poverty and violence (250). Living in America with her white husband, she was mistaken for her family’s hired help. To prove her worth to herself and the world, Forsythia courts wealth and social status. By pressuring her daughters to marry for money and prominence, Forsythia tries in her misguided way to shield them from the deprivations and humiliations she suffered. She is trying to be a good mother.

The underdeveloped characters in Imperfect Bliss are the novel’s chief shortcoming. Dario plays a crucial role in Bliss’s and Bella’s personal growth, but readers learn only a few details about his history and mindset. Diana’s excesses pervade the book. But the only glimpse into her mind is her assertion that no one will discount her as Harold discounts Forsythia. As the last child, Charlotte is also the most overlooked one. But she never discusses her feelings about her parents, whose disregard drives her into the arms of unsuitable men. Finally, there is little indication of the inner turmoil that changes Harold’s disinterest in his youngest children’s misbehavior into self-reproach for not preventing it. Fewer plotlines in the book (there are four, one for each sister) might have a fuller treatment of these characters. But all the narratives grab readers’ attention, and Fales-Hill provides plenty of insight into Bliss, the book’s heroine.

Imperfect Bliss is suitable for fans of lighthearted, fast-paced Pride and Prejudice variations. Fales-Hill’s spoof of the reality television phenomenon also touches on the more serious subjects of history and race. The result is a different, humorous, and occasionally thought-provoking Austen reimagining, one that is a suitable companion for readers enjoying the last days of summer.

4 out of 5 Stars

Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill
Atria Books (2012)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-1451623826

Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.

© Lucy Warriner, Austenprose

Austenesque, Book Reviews, Regency Era

Mr. Darcy’s Proposal, by Susan Mason-Milks – A Review

Mr. Darcy's Proposal, by Susan Mason-Milks (2011)Reviewed by Lucy Warriner

Imagine the Bennet family’s worst fears—the death of Mr. Bennet and the loss of his entailed estate to his cousin Mr. Collins—had come true in Pride and Prejudice. How would Mrs. Bennet and her five almost dowerless daughters survive? Would the unconventional Miss Elizabeth Bennet abandon her resolution to marry only for love, not money? Author Susan Mason-Milks addresses these questions in Mr. Darcy’s Proposal, her “what-if” variation of P&P.

The same day that Elizabeth Bennet discovers Fitzwilliam Darcy’s interference in her sister Jane’s romance with Charles Bingley, she learns that her father is seriously ill. Darcy finds Elizabeth in anguish and offers to escort her home. She accepts but denounces him for separating Jane and Bingley. She also condemns Darcy for his conceited behavior from the time they first met. Darcy, who has long admired Elizabeth, is shocked—he had been certain of her good opinion. Returned to her family, Elizabeth finds that her father is dying. Darcy soon calls on her and proposes marriage. He promises to provide for the Bennets once their estate passes to Mr. Collins, and to repair the rift between Jane and Bingley. When Elizabeth tells him that she is considering his offer, chiefly for her mother and sisters benefit, Darcy is undaunted. She hesitantly accepts his proposal.

Newly married, Elizabeth and Darcy settle at Bingley’s estate near the Bennets’ home. Though Darcy is humbler and kinder than Elizabeth had thought, his hauteur still makes her uneasy. So does her growing attraction to him, as their marriage remains unconsummated. After her father’s death, Elizabeth finds some comfort in Jane and Bingley’s engagement, and in Darcy’s pains to find a new home for her mother and sisters. But the transition to life at Pemberley, Darcy’s estate, is difficult. Elizabeth loves her new home, but Darcy often interferes in her responsibilities as its mistress. Fearing that her marriage was a mistake, she stifles her resentment and attempts “to . . . make the best of” things. p. 86.

Elizabeth and Darcy grow closer while he teaches her to ride, but Elizabeth’s suspicion that her husband has an illegitimate child leads to a heated confrontation. When she questions Darcy’s motives for marrying her, Elizabeth’s regret is immediate and profound. Just as she realizes that she loves him, Darcy rebuffs her. At the same time, Elizabeth learns that her underage sister Lydia has eloped with Darcy’s archenemy George Wickham. Will Darcy support the Bennets during a second family emergency? Will he ever believe Elizabeth’s professions of love?

Mr. Darcy’s Proposal realistically portrays the difficulties of marrying a man of consequence. Darcy, with all his wealth and property, likes “to command rather than ask.” p. 135 He tells Elizabeth of his plans for a special license and a modest wedding service without seeking her views. He also restricts her country walks. After Elizabeth encounters Wickham near Netherfield, Darcy makes her take the carriage wherever she goes out. When she naps under a tree after a long walk at Pemberley, Darcy insists that Elizabeth walk with a companion or stay near the house. Though he declares that she can staff and decorate their home as she pleases, Darcy disparages the lady’s maid Elizabeth chooses, alters her arrangements with the cook, and reorders the furniture that she moves.

Mason-Milks’ novel is also noteworthy for its inclusion of intelligent minor characters, many of them female. Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s aunt, quickly perceives Darcy’s goodness and sincerity. She sees what Elizabeth cannot—that Darcy can forgive her after their falling out. Lady Matlock, Darcy’s aunt, decries her sister Lady Catherine’s vendetta against Elizabeth and offers to sponsor her when she enters London society. Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter, disapproves of her mother’s rudeness and admires Elizabeth’s confidence and strength in countering it. Having lost a doting father herself, Anne also respects Elizabeth’s grief. Darcy’s sister Georgiana understands that her brother “commands” because he has run Pemberley for years. She quickly absorbs Elizabeth’s advice about infusing emotion into her singing and playing, and she eventually composes her own music and asks for more rigorous instruction.

Mr. Darcy’s Proposal is a satisfying and honest retelling of P&P that maintains respect for the novel’s characters. Mason-Milks is to be commended for bringing out some of the harsh realities underlying Austen’s work, and for creating a somewhat atypical portrait of Elizabeth, to whom Darcy at one point says, “You are usually much more outspoken in your opinions . . . the woman who used to be afraid of nothing—where has she been recently?” p. 273 This retelling parallels the nuances in P&P, adds its own shade to that “light and bright and sparkling” work, and gives Austen fans much to look forward to as a result.

4 out of 5 Regency stars

Mr. Darcy’s Proposal, by Susan Mason-Milks
Grove Place Press (2011)
Trade paperback (398) pages
ISBN: 978-0615529721
NOOK: 2940011529542
Kindle: B005OPQYK6

Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.

© 2007 – 2012 Lucy Warriner, Austenprose

Guest Blog, Jane Austen, Reading Austen

Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Lucy Warriner

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Lucy Warriner, who shares her personal story of how she discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for her.

It took me a while to give Jane Austen her due—almost fifteen years, in fact. I first encountered Austen’s novels as a young teenager. While watching Emma Thompson’s 1995 movie Sense and Sensibility, I fell in love with Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon. I was so anxious over the outcome of their relationship that I paid hardly any attention to the other characters. In due course, I read the book and was a bit dismayed to find that it wasn’t the love story I had seen in the theater. Then I watched the 1995 A&E/BBC’s six-hour Pride and Prejudice—in one sitting. As soon as I could, I tore through the novel. Reticent and self-conscious, I wanted to be Elizabeth Bennet and quell the Lady Catherine de Bourghs and Caroline Bingleys of the world.

Much indiscriminate Austen reading and movie-watching followed. My memory of my first encounter with the rest of the novels is blurred, but I’m certain that I didn’t properly appreciate any of them. I vaguely remember fearing that Henry Tilney didn’t really love Catherine Morland. I more distinctly recall nodding off during the 1971 adaptation of Persuasion.

My truer appreciation of Austen dates to my senior year of high school, when I wrote a term paper about Mansfield Park. As I read the book for the second time, it seemed as though the wool had been lifted from my eyes. I saw myself in Fanny Price, and I saw many of my peers in Mary and Henry Crawford. So I sifted through every scrap of criticism I could find, took copious notes, and wrote more than I had to. Observing this, my parents gave me a copy of David Nokes’s biography of Austen. When I presented my paper, I brought the book to class to show pictures of the topaz cross that inspired Fanny’s gift from William. My English teacher, who liked neither Austen nor me, gave me an A plus.

Still, it was another eight years before Austen captivated me. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were assigned in two of my undergraduate classes, and I leeched the life out of them with over-analysis. As a result of that experience, and the fact that rereading was then a foreign concept for me, I never returned to Austen in my free time. Instead, I read Trollope, Gaskell, Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe.

All that changed shortly after I finished graduate school. I was helping care for my severely ill father when Masterpiece Classic aired its Jane Austen season in 2008. Desperate for escape, I watched the newest adaptation of Persuasion. It transfixed me. (For all its departures from the novel and all the criticism it has received, it still does.) I tracked down my battered copy of the novel from college and started reading. I could hardly put it down, and I could hardly believe that something so painfully beautiful had failed to impress me before. Anne Elliot and I were nearly the same age. While I had never lost my true love, I knew enough of regret and loneliness to understand her plight.

Over the next several months, I read the rest of Austen’s works. Darker and more ambiguous than I remembered it, MP again grew in my estimation. NA became a new love, and I delighted in Catherine’s innocent integrity. P&P and S&S didn’t immediately grab me, but I came to respect Elinor’s self-discipline and Elizabeth’s poise. While I couldn’t tolerate Emma Woodhouse, I admired Emma as a work of art.

But when I finished, I still wanted more. The novels led me to relevant biographies, histories, and critical studies. These books led me back to the novels, which prompted me to watch movies, which encouraged me to try sequels. Then the process started all over again. It continues to this day, partly because there’s always more to be learned, but mainly because I like Austen’s view of human nature. She knows that sincerity is scarce in a world preoccupied with self, wealth, and status. Her heroines must distinguish the important from the trivial, the true from the false, in themselves and in others. Actual self-awareness seems as rare as genuine friendship and love, and those who find all three are extraordinarily lucky. For me, this circumstance is as true in real life as it is in the novels. So for the next fifteen years—and beyond—I’ll keep reading Austen.

Author Bio:

Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.

Would you like to share your personal story of reading Austen here with fellow Janeites? Submit your essay of approximately 750 words revealing how you discovered Jane Austen’s novels and why they are so special to you to Austenprose. It just might be included in our monthly column, Reading Austen, which will be published on the first Friday of every month.

© 2007 – 2012 Lucy Warriner, Austenprose