The Rose Girls, by Victoria Connelly – A Review

The Rose Girls, by Victoria Connelly (2015)From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

One crumbling manor house. Three estranged sisters. And a garden full of roses. All of these and more are ingredients in The Rose Girls, the latest novel by Victoria Connolly, author of the currently six-book Austen Addicts series. While not a book connected to Jane Austen’s novels or the Regency period, The Rose Girls is a story that shares timeless themes from Austen’s own masterpieces: the importance of family, forgiveness, healing, nature, and love.

After the news that her mother recently died of cancer, Celeste Hamilton is called back home to Little Eleigh Manor and Hamilton Roses, the family rose business, to support her two sisters. Still recovering from a divorce and memories of a painful childhood, Celeste plans only on spending a few weeks at her old home to sort through things and comfort her sisters, before escaping with her dog, Frinton, to somewhere much better and (hopefully) memory-free. On arriving back at her family home, Celeste realizes her responsibilities are much more than she bargained for. Little Eleigh Manor desperately needs repairs, and she’s the only sister willing to sell possessions to keep the house from (quite literally) falling down around them.

Supported by her sister Gertie, resented by her other sister Evie, and hearing the echoes of her mother’s past verbal abuse in her ears as she wanders Little Eleigh Manor’s halls, Celeste is surprisingly comforted by the forgotten beauty of the roses her family has grown and sold for years. With her beloved sisters distant and hiding their own secrets, and a friendly, perceptive, and surprisingly young art auctioneer interested in more than just family paintings, Celeste finds reasons to put off her escape for a few more weeks—and with her two sisters, a few roses, and a lot of love, forgive the past and change the future. Continue reading

Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard, by E. Foley and B. Coates – A Review

Shakespear Basics for Gown Ups, by E Foley and B. Coates 2015 x 200From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“We [the authors] don’t claim to be Shakespeare scholars; we are ordinary readers who were curious to learn more about our greatest national poet, and we became passionate about passing on the most interesting facts we discovered. The aim of this book is to give a solid understanding of Shakespeare’s genius and to arm you with the tools you need to enjoy him with confidence and insight” (2).

So begin Foley and Coates, two British book editors and authors of Homework for Grown-Ups (2009). In this new book, the duo takes on the daunting task of presenting a survey course on Shakespeare for adults in just 326 pages. But this is not your typical “For Dummies” book with a blue-million timelines, illustrations, and text boxes interrupting every other line and making it nearly impossible to focus and remember; instead, this book is a well-crafted teaching tool for those wanting a basic, but detailed, education on Shakespeare. This includes what one might expect: reviews of Shakespeare’s life, background information about Renaissance theatres, and summaries of Shakespeare’s major plays; but the book also boasts several unique features, which I will discuss below. Suffice it to say that, as an English teacher, I learned a great deal from this book and intend to use several selections from it in my lessons next school year.

The first chapter is all about Shakespeare’s identity. How well does anyone really know the most famous British writer of all time? The authors’ first order of business is to remind readers that there is actual evidence that a man named William Shakespeare did in fact exist. “There is a record of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564…” (13). We know that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and that he was a rather successful businessman by the 1590s (14-15). That’s not to say that Foley and Coates skirt the conspiracy theories; in fact, they conclude the first chapter with a chart of all the major theories of authorship, beginning with those centered on Shakespeare himself, then moving into the other suspected authors: Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe, and Queen Elizabeth I (36-41). Given its concise formatting, this chart is the perfect tool for group discussion or classroom instruction. Continue reading

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, by Samantha Ellis – A Review

How To Be A Heronie, by Smantha Ellis 2015 x 200From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

Those who don’t enjoy reading may assume it’s a solitary activity, and they’d be partly correct because page turning (physical or virtual) is usually done alone. But we literature lovers crave community as much as any social animal. It’s why we join book clubs and haunt web sites like Goodreads, BookLikes, and of course Austenprose. We love to connect with other readers to share passions, recount experiences, and exchange opinions about books. And reading about reading is an irresistible meta-pleasure that’s almost as fun as getting lost in a novel. For all these reasons Samantha Ellis’s, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much piqued my interest.

Her book opens on the Yorkshire Moors with Ellis and her best friend arguing about which Brontë heroine they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis made what to her was the obvious choice: passionate, gorgeous Cathy. Cathy had been her role model since first reading Wuthering Heights at twelve, and Jane had always seemed too stoic, virtuous, and, well, plain to her. But Ellis’s friend shocked her by disagreeing. Jane Eyre from is independent, her friend pointed out. Jane doesn’t suffer fools and she sticks to her principals. Her friend thought Cathy looked silly–always weeping and wailing, and marrying a rich boy because she’s a snob even though she claims to love Heathcliff. “Why not just not marry the wrong man?” Ellis’s friend asked her. Continue reading

Lizzy and Jane: A Novel, by Katherine Reay – A Review

Lizzy and Jane Katherine Reay 2014 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

Anyone with siblings can tell you how tumultuous of a relationship you can have with them. There are times where you love them to death for being a shoulder to cry on or a voice of reason. Then there are the times where they think they know everything and refuse to see you as your own individual. Katherine Reay explores the complex relationship of two sisters undergoing some intense situations in both their personal and professional lives in Lizzy and Jane.

After losing her mom to cancer, Lizzy cannot deal with the emotional burden and leaves home. She turns her anguish into a relentless energy to create in the kitchen, and works endlessly to become a respected chef. Eventually Lizzy becomes the owner of a swanky New York City restaurant, Feast. After a good amount of success, she begins to lose some of her earlier skills and the restaurant begins to falter. Paul, the restaurant’s financial backer, brings another chef in to fix this, and Lizzy does what she does best—runs away. Unfortunately she runs into another cancer diagnosis, and this time it’s her sister, Jane. Lizzy decides to finally stand her ground and deal with this new blow, and as she tends to her family she finds her abilities to create amazing foods return to her. Now, Paul attempts to woo her back to New York, but how will she react to this now that old hurts with Jane are healed? Continue reading

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:That Summer, by Lauren Willig (2014 )

After a successful divergence from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation series with the post-Edwardian The Ashford Affair, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig again embarks on another stand-alone narrative. Entangling one generation with the past is Willig’s trademark, and That Summer is of modern day Julia Conley as well as her ancestors in 1849.

In 2009, motherless Julia inherits an old family house in England from a great Aunt Regina Ashe, a woman she cannot even recall. One of the recently unemployed in the recession, she travels from New York City to Herne Hill, a district south of London, to view her inheritance and unload it as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, she meets her exceedingly obliging and maybe even presumptuous cousin, Natalie, who eagerly volunteers to help sort the old mansion and later even brings along the fine Nicholas Dorrington, if somewhat taciturn antiques dealer, to value the lot. Although they jest concerning hidden treasures, Julia cannot but wonder if in fact there might be some sort of riches her relations hope to unearth beneath the years of dust, dank oddments and papers. But what she had not expected was to exhume memories of her childhood.

Julia’s hand was on the knob of the door before she realized that she had retreated, step by step, ready to duck out and shut the door. She laughed shakily. Great. Metaphor made action. Her English professors in college would have loved that. Shut the door and shut the door. Just like she had been shutting the door all these years. Julia’s knuckles were white against the old brass doorknob. This was insane. Insane. What was she so afraid of? What was she so afraid of remembering? Maybe she was just afraid she would miss her. Her mother.” (87)

Continue reading

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library. Continue reading

Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel, by Katherine Reay – A Review

Dear Mr Knightley, by Katherine Reay (2013) From the desk of Diana Birchall:

Does anyone remember Daddy-Long-Legs, the enchanting 1955 movie in which Fred Astaire is the benevolent, mysterious, rich sponsor who sends the exquisite young French girl Leslie Caron, to college? It was a favorite musical of my childhood, along with a string of other Caron and Audrey Hepburn films. Daddy-Long-Legs actually started life, however, as long ago as 1912, as a bright, effervescent, epistolary novel by Jean Webster. It enjoyed a huge success as a Broadway play and was filmed several times, including a Japanese anime version.

Now new author Katherine Reay, instead of penning yet another in a lengthy backlist of Jane Austen updates, has cleverly chosen to write a modern retelling of Daddy-Long-Legs. Her Dear Mr. Knightley has a thoughtful literary setting, with enough Austen and Bronte references to provide intellectual mind candy for the reading woman. She also bestows an unusually satisfying romance upon her heroine, and succeeds in creating a portrait of a young writer that is so poignantly fresh and full of growing pains and uncertainties, that you question why she ever needed to lean on somebody else’s old classic at all. Continue reading

A Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant – A Review

Summer in Europe, by Marylin Brant (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“A chorus of Happy Birthday roused her into greater awareness of the rest of the group.  Her aunt, who’d managed to light candles on a big, chocolate, sprinkle-covered birthday cake, came forward in song and demanded Gwen’s attention.  She thought about her wish: to be happy, secure, loved by someone and not so very afraid her life would end before she got to experience this.  She took a breath and blew.

Every candle went out.  All except one.”

So begins the 30th year of the life of Gwen, a beige-slipper-wearing, commitment-obsessive, scrupulously diligent Iowa girl.  She loves Andrew Lloyd Weber, meticulous flossing and fruit kebabs, and she knows in her heart that all she wants is to be engaged…to an insurance agent with the company motto on the back of his car.

If you think it sounds dull, you’re right!  Gwen is lost in a life of muted and measured structure, swimming in bowls of bran cereal and floral peach skirts, Barbara Streisand, pearl earrings, and crippling juvenile embarrassment about her own sexuality.  She’s the dreariest 30-year-old you’ll ever meet, but you’ll hope for the best as Gwen’s feisty Aunt Bea surprises her with a trip to Europe.  Think of the possibilities!  She can walk among the ruins of Rome!  She can eat Sachertorte in Vienna and meander the watery streets of Venice!  She can live for once!  That is, if she’s ready to be alive at all, to breathe in and out, to take it all in.

I had my doubts, actually.  Gwen is chronically detached from everything around her, constantly moping and pouting as she participates in the classic American-in-Western-Europe experience: Italy, Austria, Hungary, France and England with a tour guide and a group of octogenarians.  As she wanders around, uninspired and lifeless, she begins to slowly understand how much she’s missing as a result of her fear and mistrust of the unknown.  Where was her path leading?  What the hell was she doing, traipsing around like a lost puppy?  Where’s the life in her life?  Gradually, she begins to figure things out with the help of a gregarious English man and his spontaneous younger brother, her aunt, and the other tour mates whose sparkling personalities utterly dwarf her own.

Having read Marilyn Brant’s work before, I was unsurprised when the prose and phrasing of the book rolled through my mind like honey, beautifully structured and carefully executed with the clarity of a practiced writer.  A Summer in Europe reads a lot like a travel guide, with snippets of history and accounts of heavily-visited landmarks and restaurants, hotels and gelato stands, coffeehouses and boutiques, an undertaking that must’ve been challenging and complicated.  Again Ms. Brant’s commitment to quality sings true, as seen in her previous works like Friday Mornings at Nine.

But just like Friday Mornings at Nine, my scruples with the book came with the depiction of characters, both main and supporting.  I rolled my eyes at Gwen’s lack of strength, passions, or pursuits and her inability to order her own meals, but I let out an audible “UGH!” at her girlish blushing in front of David in Florence.   I found myself saying, “REALLY?!” when Gwen bounced back and forth between two men, entertaining the idea of being with both of them but never considering what would happen if she were to simply be alone, to wander off the beaten track by herself and think things through.  Gwen is on a non-adventure adventure, and her determination to be a woman of the world seems disingenuous and totally insincere by the end.  A Summer in Europe’s secondary roles are filled by wholly predictable creatures, complete with bad jokes, gender stereotypes, and rounded off with an absurd encounter with “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” that I’ll leave open to your imagination.

With all the talent that seems to be pouring out of Marilyn Brant’s fingers, I still greatly look forward to another contribution.  A Summer in Europe may absolutely be worth your time if you appreciate the simple beauty of seamless prose, or if you’re thinking about visiting Europe for the first time, but you may also find that you’re better off waiting for her next book.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Summer in Europe, by Marilyn Brant
Kensington Publishing (2011)
Trade paperback (352) pages
ISBN: 978-0758261519
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758274212
Kindle: ASIN: B005G023VI

© 2007 – 2012 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Not too long ago, I picked up my old and battered copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and reread the novel.  It was my third reading.  I was pretty confident that I would stop reading after the first few chapters, thinking that I only wanted a small dose of familiarity and good, old-fashioned Gothic comfort before turning to something else, something new.  Jane’s haunting self-awareness, however, sucked me in (again) and I read the whole thing through trying hard to keep feelings of guilt at bay for what felt like a waste of my time.  I shouldn’t be rereading Jane Eyre, I told myself, when I still haven’t read Bronte’s Shirley or the book I checked out from the library or this book or that book that I should read for this or that reason.

And yet, despite these feelings, I reread all the time and I’ll probably never stop.  In fact, I hope I never do because my third reading of Jane Eyre was, so far, my most enjoyable.  “This passion for sameness,” as recently retired Literature professor and editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Patricia Meyer Spacks describes it, is the subject of her new book On Rereading, an interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir.  Released late last year by Harvard University Press, Spacks’ book attempts to answer the very fascinating question of why we read the same books over and over again.

Spacks’ book is mostly a collection of thoughts about novels reread over a period of one year, an attempt to trace personal development and growth through literature revisited.  After a nuanced examination of the act of rereading, Spacks begins her experiment with children’s books with such classics as Alice in Wonderland.  A substantial chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma follows with a discussion of how these novels continue to instruct far beyond the initial reading.  A number of chapters are devoted to the project of trying to disentangle personal and social history from the books we read and reread followed by chapters on recreational and professional rereading.  Of course, like any comprehensive book on rereading, the temptation of rereading books we should have liked, and those we feel we shouldn’t have liked but did anyway, is also explored.  The book ends with the lovely articulation that we are never alone when we read since through reading and rereading we are in a silent exchange with the book’s author, with the generations of readers before and after us, etc., that the act of rereading can be far more dynamic and interactive than we realize.

Rereading, according to Spacks, is “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight.  It rouses or soothes or reassures.  And…it can provide security” (2).  This sense of security is born from a text’s seeming stability since, as we all know, the words on the page do not change with time.  And, yet, the conviction that change has indeed taken place when we reread can feel so powerful as to convince us otherwise.  It is this sense of change, this “something,” that fascinates Spacks.  The book may not have changed over time but we, as readers, definitely have and, consequently, our relation to the book has changed as well.

Underpinning this experiment are assumptions worth highlighting: reading fiction is important, recreational reading is important, and rereading need not be an act of avoidance or laziness but re-engagement.  Readers of this blog will probably find the act of rereading pretty standard as, according to an informal British survey mentioned in Spacks’ book, Pride and Prejudice is the third most popular reread text (the Harry Potter books, interestingly, are the first most popular).  And, arguably, the countless contemporary re-imaginings of Austen’s world are, to my mind anyway, a type of rereading – we revisit and re-imagine and relive our experience(s) of reading Austen’s books whenever we pick up a contemporary book featuring Darcy or Lizzy Bennet.  Spacks’ book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you’ve ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over.  But, fair warning, you’ll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you’re done.  Hopefully with a little less guilt.

4 out of 5 Stars

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0674062221
Kindle: ASIN: B006LZTL9O
Nook: ISBN: 978-0674063310

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

Forbidden, by Syrie James and Ryan M. James – A Review

Forbidden, by Syrie James and Ryan M. James (2012)From the desk of Christina Boyd:

Look out, Alyson Noel. Make way, Becca Fitzpatrick. Heads up, Lauren Kate.  There is a spectacular new Young Adult (YA) writing team on the horizon! 

Forbidden, authored by a mother and son writing team is their debut supernatural novel chocked full of intrigue, romance and humor.  But whyever is a Jane Austen blog site reviewing such a book?  One with not even a mention of Mr. Darcy, nor a reference to Jane Austen, nor anything remotely Regency? Simply thus.  One of the authors, none other than the international best-selling author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen as well as the award winning The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Syrie James, along with her son, Ryan M. James, ventures to offer us a larger allowance of prose to our daily study.

High school sophomore, Claire Brennan is tired of constantly moving from city to city.  Every time she seems to put down roots, her paranoid, seemingly hippie mother decides to pull up stakes and start anew.  New city.  New school.   But here at Emerson Academy, in the posh Brentwood, California community, not only does Claire love her prestigious school and value the scholarship she has worked these last two years to maintain but also her two bosom buddies, Erica and Brian, whom she shares everything with.  So who can blame her for not telling her mother about her newly discovered psychic powers and the visions warning her of imminent peril?  Then there is Alec MacKenzie, new man on campus with the exotic Scottish accent and handsome good looks.  Who is he?  After he somehow saves them from being crushed by falling scaffolding… his story of being orphaned at an early age, lived all over the world with various relations and most recently emancipated from a rich uncle… seems more and more sketchy, putting Claire and her friends on high alert.  “Even if you can explain away all those other things, the fact is, I saw those platforms hover for a moment in mid-fall before being tipped, I’m telling you, Alec held them up – somehow –  with his mind, and he made them fall to the side.  He may not be a vampire, but he’s… I don’t know… telekinetic.” p. 87

What Claire doesn’t know is Alec is a Grigori, an earthly angel bound to watch and sometimes eliminate the descendants of his angelic forefathers, and chose Emerson Academy to hide from those duties, living amongst the humans as one of them. “So, when you hugged – did you feel Alec’s heartbeat?  Claire stifled a laugh.  She looked at Brian from her seat and nodded emphatically, patting her chest one-handed with a rapid drumbeat.  He grinned triumphantly and made his hand for her to turn the note over.  She did. It read: See. Told you. He’s not a vampire.” p.118  Who would have thought Alec would end up falling in love with Claire, a newly Awakened Nephilim, a half angel, a Halfblood… one whose very existence is forbidden.

At first Alec appears aloof, but his demeanor improves on acquaintance.  “Claire could feel the heat emanating from his body.  Suddenly, all she could think about was that moment in her dream when he’d almost kissed her.  He was looking at her now in the same way.  The fear and doubt she’d been harboring began to trickle away.  Whoever Alec was –whatever he was –Claire realized she wouldn’t mind if he did kiss her.” p.157  As the two discover each other, as Claire learns about her heritage and her newly discovered powers, the stakes rise and are no longer about first kisses and crushes.  “If there entire relationship was against Grigori law, what would happen if they pursued it?” p.211   It seems others have discovered her existence now and the hunt is on.  Alec vows to protect her from those he is escaping as well as The Fallen, the evil ones he has hunted for a century.  “…what are you going to do?  Turn me into your hangman committee?  Have me executed?”  “That’s what I should do.”  Vincent finished off his wine and sighed.  “But Alec has begged me to reconsider.  It seems you’ve become so important to him, he’s willing to put many lives at risk.  So we’ve made a deal.” p.307

If this all seems familiar, as in “We can’t be together… I’ll hurt you,” Bella and Edward from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga; or the mysterious, handsome teenage boy romances the odd girl with new found powers, Ever and Damen from Alyson Noel’s Immortals series; or girl falling in love with angel protector with Fallen angels all about them, Nora and Patch from Becca Fitzgerald’s Hush Hush series and Daniel and Luce from Lauren Kate’s Fallen series…  I can promise you it’s not a copycat novel.  Yes, there may be similarities but I interpreted it as part of the genre and following angel lore. It was very much about trust, discovery, and love. I totally enjoyed this. I was entertained by the inspired prose, witty dialogue, the humorous actions and reactions, and of course, the honest, pure character development.  The ending will leave you not quite hanging off a cliff by your fingernails… but I assure you, I look forward to James and James n©ext installment. This may be written for Young Adults, however, might I also suggest, for the young at heart?

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Forbidden, by Syrie James & Ryan M. James
Harper Teen (2012)
Trade paperback (416) pages
ISBN: 978-0062027894

Cover image courtesy of Harper Teen © 2012; text Christina Boyd © 2012, Austenprose.com

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides – A Review

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“In the days when success in life had depended on marriage and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? …Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time,” (22).

The above quote is great, because I suspect it reflects a tongue-in-cheek challenge that Jeffrey Eugenides put to himself when writing The Marriage Plot, a modern novel that revolves around marriage, but which faces the very plot difficulties mentioned above: gender equality and divorce—along with the giant elephant in this story’s fictional room: mental illness. In writing this tale, Eugenides shows that one need not go back in time to write a novel about marriage, for just as in the Austen canon, the main crux of this story revolves around the question of who will marry whom.

To construct the marriage plot of The Marriage Plot, Eugenides introduces to the reader three main characters—Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus—the three points of a classic love triangle: Mitchell loves Madeleine who loves Leonard who loves Madeleine who likes Mitchell. All three also attended the same school for undergraduate studies: Brown University. Like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Madeleine is from an upper, middle class family, popular, pretty and smart. Also, like Elizabeth Bennet, Madeleine can be rather “blind” to the faults of the young men she is interested in. Unlike the more famous heroine, however, she lacks both a strong moral compass and wise friends who could have given her much needed advice. Is it any wonder then that she finds herself mixed up with two young men who, rather than forming mature partnerships with her, cause her a great deal of emotional stress?

To be fair to her, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus are both interesting, handsome, intelligent young men whose flaws are not so readily apparent. Leonard, whom she meets and bonds with in a semiotics course, is something of a maverick and scientific genius with a campus reputation for sexual prowess. In contrast, Mitchell is more like the cute boy-next-door who secretly pines for the girl he will never get if he doesn’t quit acting more like a brother than a suitor. Will Madeleine choose Leonard the wounded soul/psych patient whom she likens to Bertha Mason, the crazy woman in Jane Eyre (340) or will she choose Mitchell the Christian mystic-in-the-making?

There is more to both of these young men than their attraction to Madeleine, however, and it is really their inner lives that give the novel its fascinating flavor. Eugenides does an excellent job in exploring the relationship dynamics of loving someone with a mental illness, as when he writes, “The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places,” (64-65). He also paints a moving example of the type of dysfunctional family life and difficult childhood that can contribute to the development of such diseases, along with the arduousness of seeking treatment and therapy that may or may not bring results. Likewise, his depiction of Mitchell’s quest to find God, first through study, then charity work, is equally written with powerful credibility, particularly the scenes where Mitchell volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity in India. Both storylines are sure to conjure up empathy from the reader, forming the kind of bond between characters and audience that transforms a good story into a great read.

If The Marriage Plot is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially Austenites, it could be because drugs and sex are major details of the characters’ lives. Indeed, what could be more anti-Austen than a marriage proposal delivered only after the couple has had a rather aggressive bout of sex? It could be, too, that some will be unimpressed by the storyline, which does not involve a great deal of dramatic events and flips back and forth in time. Yet, for those interested in a love story with flawed characters that seem eerily similar to themselves or people they know—thoroughly modern, yet similar to the Regency and Victorian characters they love—then Eugenides’ superb writing style and narrative crafting is sure to satisfy.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)
Hardcover (416) pages
ISBN: 978-0374203054

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the masters of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly – A Review

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly (2011)Guest review by Kimberly Denny-Ryder of Reflections of a Book Addict

There are many reasons why books published well over a hundred years ago are still relevant and well loved today.  One of these reasons is that as a reader you become so invested in the lives of the characters that you can’t help but want to read their story over and over and over again.  I’m sure that this is the case for Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters.  Her love for Louisa May Alcott’s beloved March sisters inspired her to continue their story by allowing the stories of Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy to live on via a much younger and contemporary setting.  The result is a great juxtaposition of old and new as Donnelly does an outstanding job at telling their stories and breathing new life into this classic.

The novel begins with sisters Emma, Lulu, and Sophie of the Atwater family, who live in London.  They are “imagined descendents” of Jo March, the second and very opinionated child in the March family from Little Women.  Lulu, the middle sister, is sent up to the attic of their home to find some recipes for her aunt, and inadvertently discovers a trove of letters written by Jo to her sisters.  Feeling a bit lost herself, Lulu takes solace in these letters and begins to discover the lives of the March sisters through their correspondence.  She discovers that she is much like Jo herself, and this empowers her to view her life in a whole new way, weaving the great stories of the March sisters in the past with her own present.

Firstly, I have to give Donnelly a lot of credit for her writing style.  She writes in a way that makes the Atwater sisters seem like your own, and the more you read about them, the more endearing they become.  I truly felt as if I was getting to know them as the book went on, and Donnelly allowed a relationship to grow between myself and the characters that made the book that much more enjoyable.  Secondly, I also really enjoyed that the plot of Little Women had so much influence in the writing of The Little Women Letters.  A lot of contemporary novels that I’ve read that are influenced by classics normally just take the plot of said classic novel and modernize it.  While that was done in this book, Donnelly finds ways to take the original story and infuse it with the new contemporary one, giving the reader an opportunity to hang out with his/her favorite characters from the original.

Finally, it takes a masterful artist to weave the lives of three characters together, let alone the 8+ that Donnelly works with.  She’s definitely something special and is a gem of a writer.  I wouldn’t be surprised if The Little Women Letters is as loved and adored as Little Women in the future.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly
Touchstone, New York (2011)
Hardcover (386) pages
ISBN: 978-1451617184

© 2007 – 2011 Kimberly Denny-Ryder, Austenprose

Evenfall, by Liz Michalski – A Review

Evenfall, by Liz Michalski (2011)Guest review by Shelley DeWees – The Uprising

“In summer the trees are full, but in fall they drop their leaves, and the valley surrounding land crouches below the house like a cat before it springs.  If someone searched very hard, they could just see, from that attic window, the things they hold most dear: the faintest glint of sunlight on water, the white, circling wings of gulls; the remote, unreachable face of the woman they love, telescoping away into darkness.”

As a reviewer, I tried desperately to keep my head about myself as I swam in Liz Michalski’s beautiful novel Evenfall, an un-biased, unsentimental capture of it being my goal …but as a reader, I completely dissolved under its spell and utterly failed to keep my wits.  When you read it, you’ll see that I really had no choice.  It had me.

And so, I must present a review of Evenfall much in the way that Jane Austen presented A History of England, as a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant assessor.

The back of the book would have you believe that the story is about ghosts, one in particular actually, that tries to win back the only woman who ever mattered to him even as he floats around in an amorphous almost-existence.  In reality, the ghost character isn’t much of a character at all, and is essentially used as a way to look at the lives of two women from a third person perspective.  The ghost (Frank is his name) spends most of the book in the attic of Evenfall, the old family stead of the Murphys in rural Connecticut.  The house itself seems to stand as a person, having witnessed the lives of each family member with more clarity than most, along with a cat who fends off the loneliness of an aging woman, and Nina the dog, who is Frank’s biggest fan.

No, the story is really about Gert and Andie.  Tough as nails and seasoned in World War II as a nurse, Gert lives only footsteps away from Evenfall where she’s spent 40 years watching her sister live out the life she should’ve had, with the partner she should’ve had.  Regretful and bitter, Gert is forced to face the past when Andie, her niece, returns home to help bear the burden of cleaning up the Murphy family mess.  Andie isn’t so keen on spending a summer stuck in hicktown, even though she’s running from a few of her own demons (including a pressed-shorts-wearing, expensive-car-driving dandy of a man with a toxic personality and an endless track record of infidelity).  These two women have to figure out how to move forward in summer, move forward in life, move forward as family while coming to terms with their past decisions.  We all suffer from it eventually: those pesky, nagging possibilities and consequences of the roads not taken.  Roadnottakenitis maybe, a condition we all contract sooner or later.  Gert and Anide face it amidst an interesting cast of characters, including a grown up version of a boy Andie used to babysit and a goat…or two.  How will Gert and Andie face their pasts?  Their mistakes? What does it all mean?  By the time the end of the book is looming you realize that, just like in your life, there really are no answers.  Your choices are half chance, just like Gert’s, Andie’s, and everyone else’s.

Michalski weaves a story that positively drips with the hopelessness of summertime romance, the sadness of a life lived under the guise of joy, the true emptiness that fills the soul when it discovers that it can never rest.  The prose is beautiful.  Poetic, really.  The book itself is beautiful.  Tranquil and moving.  Evenfall was a lovely vision of summer-soaked humanity, with our sweaty brows and unspoken affections, and truly a sight to behold.

5 out of 5 Stars

Evenfall, by Liz Michalski
Penguin Group (2011)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0425238721

© 2007 – 2011 Shelley DeWees, Austenprose