The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo – A Review

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo (2012)Review by Jeffrey Ward

Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a woman of forty, with nothing left to lose, could commit random acts of desperation against her normal sensibilities?  Meet Kate, the heroine of Kim Izzo’s debut novel, who is considering marriage for money and is charged to write a feature magazine article on just that:

“Let me get this straight.  I’m to write about finding a rich husband, at forty, as a guide for women, as though nothing’s changed since Pride and Prejudice was published?” p. 28

In The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, Kate Shaw is savvy, stylish, and seductively attractive at forty.  She has everything going for her, but wait….In short order, she loses her glam job at a fashion magazine, her life savings to an unscrupulous ex-boyfriend, her beloved grandmother to cancer, and her home to her pathetic mother’s gambling addiction.

To cheer her up on her fortieth birthday, her best friends buy her a gag gift of a square foot of land on a noble Scottish estate and a trumped-up title to go with it: Lady Katherine Billington Shaw.  Kate’s magazine editor and close friend Marianne asks her to write an exit feature on how to land a rich husband.  Thus, the idea Kate perpetrates with her phony title and article assignment becomes her foot in the door.

Kate’s quest begins in London where she reunites with her dear English friend Emma and husband Clive.  At a night club, Kate is introduced to romantic interest #1, Griffith Saunderson, the manager of an upscale bed and breakfast.  A handsome Englishman, Griff is thoroughly ridiculed by a drunken Kate.  Little does she know yet that Griff gets even by turning up throughout Kate’s adventures and turning her on at the most awkward moments.

Next stop is a posh Palm Beach resort where she meets Fawn Chamberlain, a ditzy former beauty queen, who is filthy rich by way of two ex-husbands.  Fawn gushes over who she thinks is titled nobility in “Lady Kate” and tutors her on the “in-crowd.”  At a polo match she meets romantic interest #2, dashing billionaire financier Scott Madewell.

Then Kate’s off to glitzy St. Moritz where she encounters romantic interest #3, Vladimir Mihailov, a wealthy Russian developer.  But who should also be there but Fawn, Scott, and Griff to stir the pot.

From there it’s back to London with the same cast of characters and the relationships between Kate and romantic interests #1 and #2 develop more serious undertones.  Desperately poor at this point, she must decide between following her heart or her purse as it seems each may be equally attainable.

I found Kate to be a very un-Austen-like heroine: deceptive, profane, promiscuous, and heavy on the Pinot Grigio.  However, the story triumphs largely on the author’s wicked sense of comedic timing which carries the dialogues, sight gags, and precarious romancing.  The situational antics Lady Kate gets into and her mental gyrations to protect her true identity, purpose, and poverty are just rolling-in-the-aisle hilarious.  Here’s Lady Kate at a polo match in Palm Beach as she endures an up-close encounter with a horse:

“I was just within reach, my heart pounding, trying to steady my hand to stroke him, when he suddenly shook his head like a wet dog, sending sweat flying everywhere, followed by a huge roaring sneeze that sounded like an elephant.  I felt the spray hit my face, my chest, and arms.  If you think horse sweat is bad, you haven’t seen the amount of snot that comes out of a horse’s nostrils.  I couldn’t help it.  I screamed and leapt backward, but instead of hitting solid ground my heel slipped in and I fell toward the moist, soft earth that wasn’t earth, but manure.” p. 96

Alas, right up until the very end, I was still disconnected from naughty Kate and often had difficulty fathoming what the men saw in her at times.  And, what of the outcome of romantic interest # 1 and #2?  Sorry, I spoileth not!

Just because her name is in the title, does The Jane Austen Marriage Manual pass muster as Jane Austen Fan-fiction?  I suppose, but I found the references to Jane Austen a bit contrived, forced, or tacked on.  Still, the author’s creative wit is evident in the chapter headings which are cleverly named and are replete with appropriate Jane Austen literary quotes.

Ultimately, what does it matter since a great read is still a great read, regardless of its genre?  I found Kim Izzo’s debut novel slow-starting but accelerating with dramatic intensity.  Whether you’re expecting a full-pull of “Austen Prose” or not, this is a worthy adventure, full of outrageous humor, endearing relationships, and breathless romantic suspense.

3.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo
St. Martin’s Press (2012)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1250003454

Jeffrey Ward, 65, native San Franciscan living near Atlanta, married 40 years, two adult children, six grandchildren, Vietnam Veteran, degree in Communications from the University of Washington, and presently a Facilitator/designer for the world’s largest regional airline.  His love affair with Miss Austen began about 3 years ago when, out of boredom, he picked up his daughter’s dusty college copy of Emma and he was “off to the races.”

© 2007 – 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose

Echoes of Pemberley, by Cynthia Ingram Hensley – A Review

Echoes of Pemberley, by Cynthia Ingram Hensley (2011)Review by Christina Boyd

Debut author Cynthia Ingram Hensley presents Echoes of Pemberley, a contemporary Pride and Prejudice spin-off for young adults.

The modern day residents of Pemberley estate are the descendants of Jane Austen’s very own Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.  A fatal plane crash eight years previous orphaned Catherine Elizabeth Darcy and left her in the guardianship of her older brother, Bennet.  Returning home from boarding school for summer vacation, sixteen year old Catie, having lived a sheltered life since the death of her parents, is ripe for a melodrama of her own.  Although she expects her break to be occupied with nothing more than riding her bicycle about her ancestral home and daydreaming in her romance novels, she finds her brother has employed a young, handsome Irish riding instructor to improve her equestrian skills.  And – her summer soon turns anything but dull.

Catie grudgingly accepts such high-handed management from Bennet but is irked by “Mister” Sean Kelley’s intolerable, no nonsense manners towards his spoiled student. “…she had resolved to be only as civil as necessary, and under no bloody circumstances was she going to stare at him like a moon-eyed, immature, fourth former again.  God, being sixteen must be purgatory.” p.53. While brooding at her bedroom window seat, Catie discovers a WWI-era diary and is swept away by the mystery and real life romance of her great Aunt.  “2 August, 1918.  He was waiting by the river again today.  He smiled when he saw me.  My heart is Arthur’s.  Taking my hand, he led me into the woods and kissed me tenderly, then harder… I would have run all the way to Scotland had he asked me.  ‘All the way to Scotland… how romantic.’ p.57.   But what she has unwittingly discovered may be the missing piece to save her brother and their inheritance from a modern day conspiracy of their own.

Buying into the fact that her fictional characters, Darcy and Elizabeth, were real, was not a difficult reach for this unabashed Austenesque fan.  Hensley cleverly mimics Austen’s original Darcy’s with her own new characters by assuming some of their essence without making them a parody.  As Catie is but an immature sixteen year old, she often bashes heads with her older, rather over protective sibling – sending both to retreat to their own corners and not communicating for the greater good. And we all must remember those vexatious teenage years, when we are no longer a child but not quite an adult? Hence much of their trouble.  “’Damn it, Catie, enough with the drama!’ slapping his hand hard against the door frame. “I can’t protect you if you don’t do as I say.  Now for once in your life behave prudently!’ ‘You’re not my father!’ She squared her shoulders, intending to strike a nerve. It appeared she succeeded, for Ben stared hard at her a moment, his mouth pressed into a thin line. He replied evenly, ‘No.  No I’m not, but I’m all the father you’ve got.’” p.113.

Echoes of Pemberley, a 2011 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) nominee, is an entirely original offshoot of Austen’s masterpiece.  Progressing at a leisurely pace until about page 200, it is peppered with the right amount of youthful angst, family drama and teenage romance. Pitch-perfect for young Austen enthusiasts, one need not have read Pride and Prejudice to relish this tale, but for those who have, they will discover an even greater enjoyment finding our beloved Darcys and Pemberley cleverly woven throughout this modern spin-off.

4 out of 5 Stars

Echoes of Pemberley, by Cynthia Ingram Hensley
Meryton Press (2011)
Trade paperback (286) pages
ISBN: 978-1936009190

Christina Boyd lives in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with her dear Mr. B, two youngish children and a Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Bibi.  She studied Fine Art at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Salisbury University in Maryland. For the last nine years she has created and sold her own pottery line from her working studio. Albeit she read Jane Austen as a moody teenager, it wasn’t until Joe Wright’s 2005 movie of Pride & Prejudice that sparked her interest in all things Austen.  A life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, visiting Jane Austen’s England remains on her bucket list.

© 2007 – 2012 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

Jane Vows Vengeance: A Novel, by Michael Thomas Ford – A Review

Jane Vows Vengeance: A Novel, by Michael Thomas Ford (2012)In the final novel in the Jane Austen Vampire trilogy (or is it???) we find our favorite two hundred year old undead authoress challenged by her condition, her past, and the future she is trying to make in Brakeston, New York with fiancé Walter Fletcher. After thoroughly enjoying the first two novels in the series, Jane Bites Back and Jane Goes Batty, we are all anticipation of how vampire Jane’s satiric, quirky and totally hilarious life in the twenty-first century will wrap up—or live on into eternity.

Wedding plans are in full swing even though Jane’s fiancé Walter is unaware of his future bride’s famous past or her present condition. His darling *cough* mother, Miriam the vampire hunter, is hampering the planning with her upbeat *cough* attitude and looming ultimatum that Jane must become pregnant within a year or she will stake her. Walter’s suggestion that they combine the wedding with a European tour offered by his architectural preservation association it quickly adopted finding an unlikely group of Jane and Walter’s friends and family jumping the pond to witness the nuptials in London and tour castles and other feigned sites of Europe together. Along the way they meet zombies, vampires, ghosts, forgotten husbands, and murdered fellow travelers, while Jane searches for the great vampire urban legend, Crispin’s Needle, capable of unmaking a vampire and restoring their human soul.

Ford has given us another treasure. The one-line zingers, snarky characters, break-neck pace, and nimble dialogue immediately remind us why it is such a joy to be back in his warped world. Jane Austen as a vampire? No way! Yes way! His prose is sharp, imaginative and shamelessly waggish, and we love it. The inside Janeite jokes abound. This sent us rolling:

“How awful to go through life named after someone you didn’t care for…For instance, suppose your mother adored Charlotte Bronte and you had been named Jane Eyre, yet you found the character stupid and tedious.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” said Jane, earning her a stern look from Lucy. p 69

Yes, Jane’s sick nemesis Charlotte is back, and so is her suave mentor Lord Byron, along with a slew of hilarious new characters. Jane Vows Vengeance takes us on a Da Vinci Code meets Agatha Christie meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer adventure that I did not want to end. We can only hope that Ford will be coerced into another set of three to appease the facetious Austen, vampire, three-legged talking Chihuahua, parody lovers in us all.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Vows Vengeance: A Novel, by Michael Thomas Ford
Ballantine Books (2012)
Trade paperback (288) pages
ISBN: 978-0345513670
NOOK: ISBN: 978-0345524379
Kindle: ASIN: B00540PB9Q

© 2007 – 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Compulsively Mr. Darcy, by Nina Benneton – A Review

Compulsively Mr. Darcy, by Nina Benneton (2012)Guest review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder

I’ve often wondered what modern day psychiatric medicine would say about some of my favorite literary characters.  Are they bi-polar?  Do they suffer from ADHD, depression, or a form of autism?  Author Nina Benneton explores what a modern day Darcy would be like, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder in her debut novel Compulsively Mr. Darcy

Benneton’s tale is a break from tradition right from the start, as we find our beloved characters in Vietnam, with Darcy and Bingley traveling to help their good friends, the Hurst’s, finish an adoption via an agency run by Miss Jane Bennet .  All is running well until Mr. Bingley takes a fall and suffers a broken leg as he humorously attempts to ride a bike.  After being taken to the local hospital, Darcy decides that he will accompany his good friend, yet will not enter the hospital building itself.  Darcy is incredibly frightened by the sight of blood and is unable to deal with germs, making a hospital a difficult place for him to be.  Enter Dr. Elizabeth Bennet.  Darcy, sick of waiting outside for Bingley, storms into the hospital and determines Elizabeth has been helping other patients for far too long and demands help for Bingley.  His outburst on Bingley’s half causes Elizabeth to assume that he and Bingley are a couple.  Before Elizabeth has a chance to respond to his outburst, he sees the blood on her smock from a recent surgery and passes out.

After this less than perfect first meeting, Darcy and Elizabeth are thrown into each other’s company after Elizabeth is hired to work as the doctor for their resort.  Thinking she is safe from any type of relationship (since she assumes Darcy is gay) she feels free to be herself and begins spending more time with him.  The two grow increasingly fond of each other and quickly strike up a friendship that may turn into something more.  Although a relationship with this man is the farthest thing from Elizabeth’s mind at the moment, a surprising chemistry and connection forms between the two, leading to quite the romance.  What will happen when Elizabeth finds out Darcy isn’t gay?  Will his OCD come between them?

I’m always amazed at how many new situations authors can drum up to place Elizabeth and Darcy in.  Even with all these new ideas, Benneton’s story tops my list of most creative.  Giving Darcy OCD makes complete sense to me.  In the original Pride and Prejudice Darcy takes it upon himself to feel guilty over everything that Wickham does and he also feels the need to protect Bingley from fortune hunters.  Not only this, but he is also under a tremendous amount of stress that the running of Pemberley and guardianship of his sister causes.   It doesn’t surprise me that our modern-day imagining of Darcy would have OCD with that load.  What’s fascinating about giving Darcy OCD is the amazing side of Elizabeth that comes out.  Sure she still makes rash assumptions at first, but the unconditional love she has for Darcy (ALL of Darcy) is inspiring.  She looks beyond Darcy’s OCD to see the man deep inside who isn’t riddled with an incessant need to wash his hands and control everything around him, and loves him.  She accepts him just the way he is, a trait hard to find in people sometimes.

Not only does Compulsively Mr. Darcy give us a peek into what life with OCD is like, but we get to experience new cultures!  I for one had not a clue what life in Vietnam was like, whether it be about their cuisine, fashion, or rituals.  Benneton does a great job at infusing tidbits of knowledge about these things into the storyline in an intriguing manner, making the reader want to pick up a book and study the culture more.  (I’ll also admit that her descriptions of the landscapes and landmarks there have made me add Vietnam to my bucket list of must visit places)

Benneton’s unique and inventive story is a wonderful addition to the Jane Austen fan fiction world.  However, Compulsively Mr. Darcy is definitely not for the Austen purists out there.  A more mature audience will appreciate this romantic, sensual new retelling of our favorite duo, Elizabeth and Darcy.

4 out of 5 Stars

Compulsively Mr. Darcy, by Nina Benneton
Sourcebooks (2012)
Trade paperback (352) pages
ISBN: 978-1402262494
Nook: ISBN: 978-1402262500
Kindle: ASIN: B006IBFYGU

Kimberly Denny-Ryderis the owner/moderator of Reflections of a Book Addict, a book blog dedicated to following her journey of reading 100 books a year, while attempting to keep a life! When not reading, Kim can be found volunteering as the co-chair of a 24hr cancer awareness event, as well as an active member of Quinnipiac University’s alumni association.  When not reading or volunteering, Kim can be found at her full-time job working in vehicle funding. She lives with her husband Todd and two cats, Belle and Sebastian, in Connecticut.

© 2007 – 2012 Kimberly Denny Ryder, Austenprose

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight – A Review

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight (2012)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The archetypical figure of the fairy godmother – an imagined mentor with supernatural powers – is an attractive trope because it suggests that certain elements of the unseen universe are rooting for us whether we are aware of it or not.  The most popular fairy godmother is arguably the sweet-tempered, grandmother-like figure of Cinderella who swishes her wand to create carriages out of pumpkins and attractive debutantes out of housemaids but she has also appeared in literature as conniving and ruthless (Shrek) or even male and wizardly (Gandalf could be thought of as a “fairy godperson,” couldn’t he?).  If you’ve ever imagined a fairy godmother as equal parts scheming and shrewd, unrelenting and witty, in perhaps a bonnet with a quill in hand, then you might be interested in Alyssa Goodnight’s new novel Austentatious in which a certain popular eighteenth-century female novelist takes on the role as modern-day life coach.

With a release date of January 31, 2012, from Kensington Books, Austentatious tells the story of a modern woman living in Austin, Texas who comes across a rather strange and somewhat presumptuous vintage journal that is inexplicably writing her back.  Such messages as “Miss Nicola James will be sensible and indulge in a little romance” and one of my favorites, “cleavage is as cleavage does,” quite understandably alarm Nic and she soon begins to believe the little journal is channeling Jane Austen herself.  While the idea of a personal life coach who may be Jane Austen is definitely alluring, Nic soon finds Jane’s advice to be distracting and more than a little unnerving because it threatens to upset the life she has spent years trying to build.

An engineer based in Austin, Nic is a steadfast believer in The Plan, a rigid set of life goals meant to help Nic professionally and romantically advance in a sensible manner.  When we meet Nic at the beginning of the novel, she is bent on landing a promotion and pursuing a relationship with a similarly-minded work colleague.  All seems to be moving in the right direction when a mysterious journal makes its way to her.  Instead of quietly accepting and retaining her words, the journal inexplicably erases and rearranges them to leave messages for its owner.  Despite feeling hesitant and enormously confused, Nic decides to consider the possibility that the journal may be channeling Jane Austen herself because of the journal’s history and thinks there can be little harm in following its advice until it begins to set things in motion that go against her life’s plan.  Enter Sean MacInnes, a warm and charming musician from Scotland who just so happens to think that Nic is the one for him.  Much to Nic’s dismay, her journal feels the same way.  While struggling to make sense of her experiences, Nic must choose between The Plan or the one life seems to have for her.

As mentioned in her Austenprose blog entry, Goodnight serendipitously came across an actual journal dedication in her research written by Jane Austen to Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen with the hope that her niece would derive some instruction from her writings.  Goodnight cleverly uses this as a launching point for her novel’s premise.  Additionally, as mentioned in the novel’s afterword, Austentatious is a “(loosely interpreted) modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and part homage to the wit and timelessness of Ms. Jane Austen.”  Moreover, and much to my liking, it is also a homage to great literature including a number of witty and funny references to Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings.  In fact, one of things I loved about this novel was the writing.  Goodnight’s writing is lively, engaging, and enjoyably fast-paced.  Austentatious will be of particular interest to those readers looking for something more modern to complement their Austenesque tastes.

4 out of 5 stars

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight
Kensington Books (2012)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0758267436
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758278067
Kindle: ASIN: B005JSZOIG

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.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Persuade Me (Darcy & Friends 2), by Juliet Archer – A Review

Persuade Me (Darcy & Friends 2), by Juliet Archer (2011)Guest review by Jeffrey Ward

Author Juliet Archer has undertaken the daunting task of re-writing Jane Austen’s classic novels with a modern and contemporary twist. Her first novel in the series, The Importance of Being Emma (2008), was warmly embraced. Now, Persuade Me is the second offering in her Darcy & Friends series.  Reading Persuade Me was like gazing with admiration at any one of my six grandchildren.  There before me are reminders of some of the best-loved features of my own children but lovingly arranged fresh and new. As I began the 341 page odyssey I thought to myself “What can possibly be so entertaining and compelling about a story that you already know the outcome of?”

First, Archer has wisely chosen to drape her updated story on the framework of what this reviewer considers Miss Austen’s greatest love story.  The faithfulness and accuracy to which she closely marks her contemporary story line to Jane Austen’s original is quite astonishing.

Second, it is my conviction that a reader who perchance has never read any of Jane Austen’s works would consider Persuade Me as a stand-alone story of remarkable strength, humor, emotion, suspense, and depth-of-feeling. It is also a testament to the author’s writing skill that we read greater insights into the character and feelings of the hero which are somewhat absent in the original.

The Author sets the stage with Dr. Rick Wentworth, (Capt Frederick Wentworth) an eminent marine biologist who has been working in Australia for the past ten years and still struggling to forget his first love: Anna Elliot.  He has published a best-selling book on his research and is returning to England for a book-signing tour.  It is inevitable that he once again encounters Anna Elliot who is a lecturer in Russian studies at Bath & Western University. She treats her noble heritage with more contempt than pride because it was the threatened reputation of her titled family that forcibly separated the lovers a decade ago. They finally meet again at Uppercross, the home of Rick’s sister, Sophie Croft.  Rick tries not to remember but cannot help himself….

Her voice – and the years crumbled away … He was jumping over the rocks to be with her and she was saying ‘Careful, Rick.’  She never shouted, never had to; he always heard her, as if his brain was tuned to a special frequency … Other memories intruded.  On the boat, just the two of them.  His voice, strangely hesitant: ‘My grandmother used to say – if you can’t be good, be careful.’  And her laugh, soft and seductive, like her skin against his: ‘Well then, we’d better careful, hadn’t we?’ page 89

Anna Elliot (Anne Elliot) is the middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, the eighth Baronet of Kellynch, and her deceased mother, Princess Irina Grigoryevna Petrova, a descendent of the Russian aristocracy.  Her present situation parallels Rick’s in that she is also living in the past with what might have been…

“Somewhere deep down was another Anna, the one she’d been at eighteen during that summer in France.  The one Rick Wentworth had coaxed into being, then left to shrivel and die.  And she hadn’t really looked at another man since.  Oh she’d tried; at Oxford there’d been a few boyfriends, but they simply couldn’t compare.  It was like warming yourself on a radiator when you were used to basking in the sun.  She’d grown accustomed to it now, this quiet longing for another life.” page 34

Juliet Archer honors the legacy of the original novel by respectfully maintaining what I believe to be the original artistic intent of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. ALL the unforgettable content is gloriously revisited in Persuade Me:  The story line with its melancholy mood, sense of longing, and anticipation, the characters, the anecdotes, the locations….EVERYTHING is in there down to the minutest detail!  Revisit Kellynch and its environs, Bath, Uppercross, Lyme Regis and the Cobb.  Relive the situations: the party at the Musgrove’s, the walk in the country, the nephew firmly attached to Anna’s neck, the accident on the  Cobb, the encounter at the theater in Bath, the emotional dialogue between Anna and Ben (Capt Harville) and finally the letter….yes, that wonderfully soul piercing LETTER!  Every single one of the people in Persuasion lovingly reappear in Persuade Me: Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter Elizabeth in all of their excessive vanity, Lady Russell, the Crofts, Mrs. Clay, the Musgroves, Mrs. Smith, Benwick, Harville, Lady Dalrymple, the adorable Musgrove nephews, William Elliot, and best of all – Anna & Rick.

Is Persuade Me a “new old story” or an “old new story?”  Whatever you consider it, I hope I have “persuaded” you to add this impressive offering to your stack of must-reads.

 5 out of 5 Stars

Persuade Me (Darcy & Friends 2), by Juliet Archer
Choc Lit (2011)
Trade paperback (416) pages
ISBN: 978-1906931216

Jeffrey Ward, 65, native San Franciscan living near Atlanta, married 40 years, two adult children, six grandchildren, Vietnam Veteran, degree in Communications from the University of Washington, and presently a Facilitator/designer for the world’s largest regional airline.  His love affair with Miss Austen began about 3 years ago when, out of boredom, he picked up his daughter’s dusty college copy of Emma and he was “off to the races.”

© 2007 – 2011 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose

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