Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What I've Read Recently: Austenesque Edition

What I've Read Recently: Austenesque Edition . . .

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter: A Novel of Jane Austen's Lady SusanLady Vernon and Her Daughter: A Novel of Jane Austen's Lady Susan by Jane Rubino and Caitlin Rubino-Bradway -- Austenesque

This book fleshes out Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan. In the original, Lady Susan comes across as an anti-heroine. She's seen as a coquette and a terrible mother. While it can be taken at face value, we all know Jane Austen was more complex than that. What would the story be like if Jane Austen had gone back to it to prepare it for publication? This book asks the questions: "Who is Lady Susan Vernon really?" and "What made her that way?" It turns everything you think you know on it's head! The plot starts off well before Susan is even born. Susan Martin is a young, vivacious, accomplished woman. She's from a minor gentry/banking background and doesn't have much in the way of a fortune but her accomplishments make up for it. Her aunt Lady Martin wishes to marry her only son James to his cousin Susan. Susan loves James very much, but only like a brother. James' father objects to the match so he puts Susan in the way of some young acquaintances of his, the Vernon brothers. Charles, the younger brother is charming but Susan can see through his charm to his less than desirable personality. His elder brother Frederick, though much older than Susan, is a more interesting companion. He's quiet,loves books and dogs but is a good companion. Charles plans to ask Susan for her hand in marriage if he can be sure she will have something more than 5 thousand pounds. While he deliberates, his older brother steals a march on him and proposes to Susan. Susan eagerly accepts Frederick's hand in marriage. The couple are very happy together and adore their daughter Frederica. A financial crisis ten years into the marriage compels them to sell their home, Vernon Castle, but still does not lessen their love. They are quite content at Churchill until Sir Frederick has an accident. Charles is quite attendant on Sir Frederick during the crisis, with his own agenda in mind. The ladies are bit suspicious but they do not have any proof of villainy. Lady Vernon and her daughter are thrilled when Sir Frederick recovers. He realizes he must do something for his ladies in case of another accident or illness. Sadly, Sir Frederick dies before he can call on his solicitor. The ladies are left homeless when Charles and Catherine Vernon move in with their brood. Poverty and misery cause the Vernon ladies to visit friends in the country where they are forced to socialize with idle, silly gossips who give the ladies the reputations that stick with them for the rest of the novel. Lady Vernon attempts to remain independent of her relatives and find a suitable husband for her daughter. Of course she will consider her daughter's happiness above all else but who will marry a girl without a dowry? Rumors swirl about Sir James Martin and Frederica; Susan and two other gentlemen and fuel the gossip mill from town to country until the story reaches it's inevitable conclusion.

It begins slowly and I kept having to refer to the family tree in the beginning to keep everyone straight. The plot gets more interesting when the story picks up where Austen's story begins. The authors flesh out the letters in the original story to show the whole story. They ascribe meaning and motive behind every behavior. The characters you thought you loved to hate become sympathetic and the characters you liked become villains. It follows the traditional Austen model of money, courtship and happiness. There is a plot twist at the end that I don't see Austen including. It's very unlike her. It surprised me greatly because I didn't expect it. I kept expecting it not to be what it seemed or not to have the outcome it did. It made the story wrap up a little too neatly. Like Sense and Sensibility, it illuminates the difficulties of being a widow with a daughter without money. Like Mrs. Dashwood, Lady Vernon is forced to sponge of relatives and friends to survive. Unlike Mrs. Dashwood, she worries about her future and her daughter's future. She's not silly about it like Mrs. Bennet. She's practical and realistic about their future. She is truly a concerned and interested parent. She becomes a victim of gossip, first impressions and mistaken impressions. For all of the above reasons, I felt sympathy for her and liked her a lot. This story perfectly captures Austen's message about how difficult it was to be a woman without fortune, something she knew all too well.

The writing style is very much like Jane Austen. The authors borrow her sentence structure and word choices and sometimes even lift or rewrite well known phrases from the major six novels. I didn't really like the borrowing but I did like the writing style a lot. It's not easy to mimic Jane Austen but they did it successfully. There are brief mentions of the Elliots from Persuasion and one mention of Mrs. Ferrars. I found it kind of silly to have them inhabit the same world but at the same time, I liked the imagined prequel to Persuasion. 

I especially love bookish Frederica. She's a scientist and loves studying plants. She's not pedantic like Mary Bennet; she's practical and good-natured. She can be a bit reserved but she has a kind heart and deserves happiness. She would be a good friend for Mary Bennet to learn from. Her friend Maria Manwaring is also commendable. She's in a difficult situation and unhappy but yet she's determined to be happy no matter what. I didn't like the outcome of her story. It's a bit creepy but she knew what she needed to be happy and I believe she will be. The Martins are great characters. Sir James is interesting. The only person who truly knows him is Susan. He comes across as a fribble but he has more depth than that. I love the way he casually corrects the Vernons manners while visiting Churchill. He's sort of a Georgette Heyer beta hero. His mother is an intelligent, capable, strong woman who knows what she wants. She's not above meddling in a good way but knows when to keep out and mind her own business and knows when to offer kindness and help when it's needed. I love her relationship with her son. It's very different from the other mother/son relationship in the story. Reginald is a nice gentleman. I like how his character develops over time as he grows up and gets away from the influence of his ridiculous mother and silly friends. He learns to think and form opinions for himself. He's not hot headed and doesn't really mind the gossip too much. He's kind and gentle and truly caring.

Most of the other characters are awful people, with the exception of the elderly men. Charles Vernon is especially despicable. His wife is stupid. I found her relationship with her mother really bizarre. I fail to see how an intelligent woman like Lady Vernon can be friends with Alicia Johnson whom I found incredible irritating. Her letters are painful to read knowing what's happening from Lady Vernon's point-of-view. I am curious to know what Austen intended for the secondary characters. We know she didn't like foolish, shallow, selfish people and this novel has plenty of them!

Aside from a few very minor issues, this book is excellent. It could be taken for a draft of a 7th Jane Austen novel. I highly recommend it to Jane Austen fans. 

Definitely Not Mr. DarcyDefinitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos -- Contemporary Romance

Thirty-nine year old Chicgaoan Chloe Parker thinks the Regency era was the most romantic time period ever. She's memorized all of Jane Austen's novels, is a member of the Jane Austen Society and dreams of Mr. Darcy riding around on horseback. The reality of her life is that her letterpress business is failing and her ex-husband wants to sue for more custody of their eight-year-old daughter Abigail. When Chloe learns about a documentary on Jane Austen fans being filmed in England, she knows she has to audition. There will be quizzes and a grand cash prize. She knows she can ace this one and turn her life around. Surprise! When she arrives in England, she's told the documentary format is out and reality dating competition is in! Chloe is disgusted by the idea, but she can't give up having come so far. What would she tell Abby? Besides, Sebastian Wrightman, eligible bachelor, is a Regency hunk of a man and Chole is prepared to win a proposal and win the money. She has no intentions of marrying again. Chloe finds she isn't quite prepared for life in Regency England. It's not quite as glamorous as it sounds in the novels; it's dirty and odoriferous, plus there's a Caroline Bingley-esque lady, Lady Grace, who will stop at nothing to prevent someone else from claiming the grand prize. Lady Grace manages to make Chloe look bad at every turn yet Sebastian seems drawn to her. She enjoys flirting with him whenever she gets a chance. She's also drawn to his younger, penniless brother Henry, a doctor. She's determined to win this competition even if it means turning her back on a friend. Yet, her conscience won't let her become entirely ruthless and she misses Abigail. Does she have what it takes to win?

The premise of this book is similar to Austenland but I liked it better. At first I was skeptical of the reality show set up and though I didn't like it at the end, it drove the story better than the theme park idea in Austenland. I liked Chloe better than the heroine of Austenland because she's actually a fan of the Regency era and has read the books. She doesn't spend all her time mooning over Mr. Darcy. She learns a valuable lesson in the end, which I liked. Yet, I also found Chloe annoying and selfish. I felt bad for her ex. While they were married, she complained he didn't spend enough time with their daughter and now he wants to spend more time with her, Chole hates him for it. I think she might fear that Abigail will enjoy spending time with the modern and wealthy crowd in New England rather than with her mother. That wasn't explicitly stated in the book. It would have made Chloe a better character if she stated her fears that her daughter would grow away from her while they were apart. As the story stands, Chloe's reaction doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm not a mother, so maybe it is normal for her to feel that way. She obsessed over her daughter all the time and it gets quite tedious. She needs a life.

The other characters in the story are really flat. Lady Grace is a typical villain. She's worse than Caroline Bingley because she thinks she's above the rules and she'll stoop to any low to win. She does things Caroline Bingley wouldn't dream of. The other girls are hardly in the story. It would have been nice to get to know some of them better and have them interact with Chloe. It seems very soap operish to have the two ladies go at it all the time. The chaperones didn't do much for all they were supposed to be strict Regency era chaperones. The fact that Chloe's chaperone was pregnant didn't make much sense! She was a woman who needed the money but in the Regency era she would have been lying in at home and not chaperoning a young lady. Fiona has the most potential to be developed but there are surprises there that disappointed me. The gentlemen are SO transparent! I figured them both out right away and since Chloe has read Jane Austen's novels, she should have too. She did start to realize some of what was happening but she was so focused on money, she couldn't see the bigger picture. Neither of the gentlemen are true gentlemen. They both want something from Chloe. She should have responded "You sir, are no gentlemen" and "... had you behaved in a more gentlemanly like manner..." One of the gentlemen was better than the other and if it weren't for a few moments, I probably would have loved him. Chloe's reaction at the end was justified. I would have reacted the same way (but a lot sooner).

The plot had a lot of lows and some highs. Mostly lows in terms of cat fighting, some really bawdy humor that was more gross than funny, some almost too steamy moments and a lot of whining. The good parts were the romantic bits that built a friendship with one of the gentlemen. That was very sweet and in other circumstances, I think they could have gotten close. There were also inconsistencies in Regency life and etiquette. Chloe claims to love the Regency era and know everything about it, yet she's not prepared for the reality of being a middle class Regency lady. She doesn't know how to do any ladylike accomplishments for all she thinks she lives in the past. I noticed some small errors here and there. The only major one was that pantalets were just two fabric legs tied together with a string. No need to fiddle with them while using the chamber pot. Grace was the biggest inconsistency of them all. She wants to win yet she doesn't play by the rules. She thinks she's a real lady but she doesn't act like one. The best thing this book does is show how difficult life was for women in 1812, especially impoverished women and unmarried women of a certain age. It also disillusions the reader and shows just how dirty and dangerous the time period was. I already knew all that but it was still jarring to read.

This is very much an adult novel. A lot of the humor is aimed at adult women. There's nothing that specifically brings the book up to an R rating but there are some X rated objects and raunchy humor.

I would recommend this book over Austenland but not over Victoria Connelly's A Weekend With Mr. Darcy.

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