Review: Austenland by Shannon Hale

3.5 out of  5 meh stars

I’m reading Austen in August – go check out The Book Rat if you would like to know more!

Why make women feel bad about what they like? That’s my question.

The main problem I had with this is that I didn’t connect with the main character. Jane Hayes is a graphic artist in love with Jane Austen, not unlike yours truly. Well, the book began by dissing my favorite Pride and Prejudice adaptation – I mean, if you like Jennifer Ehle’s simper over Keira Knightley’s pout, fine, but you ain’t gotta disrespect it in the very first chapter. I could find all kinds of problems with that wetted up Colin Firth vehicle but I won’t. ANYWAY. I just could not relate. Jane is obsessed with Mr. Darcy. Specifically, with Colin Firth’s interpretation. The main argument seems to be that this idea is holding her back from having a real man. Which didn’t quite seem to be the problem, to me. She’s had a string of losers and a lot of half-started relationships that probably shouldn’t have even been included as “relationships”. We know all about her string of previous boyfriends because each chapter begins with the story of boyfriends #1-13. 

Second: the shaming. If you are a woman with a romantic nature, I don’t think you should be ashamed of it, or what you are romantic about. Obviously, listing the guy in your building who had the mailbox next to yours, and who turned you down when you asked him to go rollerblading amongst your “boyfriends” is not realistic. But I hated the way everyone treated Jane. They focused on the Darcy thing instead of the relationship thing and treated her as if she were some sort of emotional leper. I don’t see what the tendency to turn acquaintances into “boyfriends” had to do with her Darcy thing. The relationship thing was her problem. Even her “best friend” was really condescending.

Thirdly, there was the unrealistic setting of Austenland. Basically, Jane’s rich aunt dies. She had figured out Jane’s horrible, shameful secret (of being Darcy obsessed) and decided to continue shaming her from beyond the grave, by sending her to a 3 week Austen role-playing retreat in England. But even when Jane goes to have her fantasy, we have to have a pity party because she is cast as the ‘poor relation’. She is informed she is not “their usual clientele” or ie: rich. There is another American, dubbed “Elizabeth Charming” who fakes a horrible accent and openly complains when she’s not courted by the men. She also lets out cries of “tallyho” and “what what” like some Dickensian cockney. It’s cringe inducing.  Another woman who plays the part to perfection is Amelia Heartright. At first, I was confused if she was one of the paying guests or an actor there to liven things up as a rival.

The men they are to vie for are, of course, delicious. Mr. Nobley is very Darcy, taciturn and aloof. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is that way because he’s a shy introvert, but Nobley is those things. He seems to have no interest in wooing anyone, except perhaps Amelia, who he seems to have a friendly regard for. He and Jane take an instant dislike to one another, and she delights in verbally skewering him every chance she gets. These are some of the best parts in the book – however, the movie has the fabulous line about all the best men being fictional. That isn’t in the book. The other gentleman offered up as a suitor is much more obliging. Colonel Andrews is dashingly handsome, allegedly a profligate rake and very handy with the ladies. However, it’s a gardener that first attracts Jane’s attention. This is very against the rules, as guests are expected to behave with Regency manners, which means the servants are invisible. Theodore is incredibly tall and sweet, and he also has a penchant for American basketball.

Sadly, she’s pretty much sticking to her usual thing, and she realizes it. She is hoping that this 3 week trip will be immersion therapy, and when it’s over, she will have put this ridiculousness behind her. She goes through a range of emotions, from pulling back into her “poor relation” role and feeling sorry for herself, to realizing she needs to throw herself into the drama (and teasing Mr. Nobley) to rediscovering her artistic instincts. She realizes what she wants out of life and that influences the ending. I did not like the ending. I felt the idea was that the guy she wound up with was as messed up as she is – so back we go to the romantic shaming. It’s a silly thing to focus on for a romance novel, you know? At about the 3/4 mark I got kinda bored and seemed to be skimming a lot.

The best thing about this whole thing was imagining J.J. Field as Mr. Nobley. I didn’t like the movie version much better. They made Jane look like an idiot, and it was like a farce, almost, whereas the novel treated everything very seriously. (The ending was much better, though.) I have the 2nd book, which seems to have a darker plot, more mystery than anything, and a different main character, so I will continue.

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