Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What I Read in November Part I

What I Read in November Part I . . .

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane AustenFirst Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett-- Historical Speculative Fiction/Contemporary Romance/Austenesque

This dual narrative novel tackles Jane Austen's life, the history of printing and publishing, modern romance and intrigue. In 1796 in Hampshire, a clergyman's daughter named Jane Austen happens across a rumpled old man sitting on a stile hunched over reading. Her first impression is that he is a comical figure to be put in a novel she may write one day. His first impression is that she is a rather dull and impetuous young lady. Happily their first impressions are wrong and they soon discover they have a lot in common. They both love to read novels and Mr. Mansfield is also a writer. He has written one book of dull allegorical tales for children but he knows what it takes to be a great writer and he sees it in Miss Austen. The pair soon become close as Mr. Mansfield advises Jane on her writing and provides life advice as they share long walks and cups of tea. Jane trusts him with her darkest secret and Mr. Mansfield comes up with a plan to atone for Jane's feelings of guilt. This plan may alter the course of literary history forever. In present day Oxfordshire, Sophie Collingswood has just completed her Masters' Degree in nineteenth century literature and is wondering what to do next. She's looking forward to some advice from her beloved, bibliophile Uncle Bertram. When she encounters Eric Hall, a brash American who mocked her favorite author (Jane Austen, of course), she's prepared to dismiss him, but as Jane Austen knew well, first impressions may not be entirely correct. Sophie's world is shattered when her uncle dies. She takes comfort in the fact he left her his extensive library, but she is shocked to learn his books were sold to pay his debts. She's determined to get them back one way or another. Her search leads to her a rare book dealer who gives her a job. On the day she's hired, a hunky young man comes in the store to chat her up. He's searching for the second edition of Mansfield's book. When it becomes clear Sophie can't find it right away, he's content to be with her. Then another customer calls looking for the exact same book and he is not so friendly. He threatens Sophie and makes her fear her uncle's death was not as innocent as it seemed. Why are they searching for this particular book? When she finds it, she receives the shock of a lifetime and discovers her favorite author may have plagiarized her most famous novel. Sophie sets out to clear the name of her beloved Jane Austen no matter what; then she can figure out her love life and what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

This is a thrilling book with lots going on. A summary can only scratch the surface. I loved the bookishness of the contemporary plot. Rare books, libraries and history centers are my true love so the setting of the novel appeals to my nerdy heart. The biggest strength of the novel is Jane Austen's plot. I feel the author was true to what we know of her. I truly appreciated the love story. It's a nice change to read a love story that isn't romantic or familial. I hope Jane did have someone like that in her life. We know she was close with Madame LeFroy, but I liked how Mr. Mansfield mentored her and helped shape her writing. The description of life in 18th century Hampshire was excellent. The author didn't try too hard to make Jane's novels inspired by real life. There are some places and incidents that influence her writing but in a natural way. It didn't feel forced the way most novels about Jane's life do. The story almost made me teary eyed towards the end.

Sophie is a great heroine. She's very real. She's not perfect. She's been hurt, she's made mistakes and she's aware of her faults. She's insecure outside of the world of academia and trying to figure out how to be a grown-up. I can really relate to that, being in the same place in my life. She's tenacious, and though I don't approve of some of her methods, I can see me doing many of the same things. I found her relationships interesting. The Mr. Darcy love interest was so swoony - I fell in love with him and the Willoughby suitor was just too obvious to be believable. I found Sophie far more believable and well-written than the contemporary male characters. The men were very two-dimensional and not fleshed out enough. I wanted a bit more character development for one of the two boyfriends. Sophie does shag a man but nothing is really described but how it made her feel. It's mentioned a few times and there's a tiny bit of skin in a second shagging scene, but nothing is described in detail so I rate this as a clean read but not kisses only.

The weak parts of the novel made me bump it down from 4 stars. First, it was obvious which one of Sophie's boyfriends was Mr. Darcy and which was Willoughby. She should know that by now. She chose to ignore what her beloved Jane teaches her readers. The villain was also rather cartoonish. Another thing I didn't like were the obvious inaccuracies about book collecting, rare book shops and libraries. Not only were there inaccuracies, I didn't approve of Sophie's methods of obtaining what she wanted. As a librarian, she should know better. The story also relies too much on coincidences. I also found sections on the history of printing that were from the point-of-view of the printer very boring and unnecessary.

Even with all the faults, I found the mystery so compelling that I had to keep turning the pages to find out how Sophie solved the mystery. It's a real page turner. I also liked the parallel between Sophie's relationship with her Uncle Bertram and Jane's relationship with Rev. Mansfield. I loved reading the (imagined by Lovett) first draft of First Impressions. It was pretty poorly written and if it had remained as such, no one would be reading it today. It really showed what a skilled writer Jane was.

This review is based on my first impression. I need to read it again to see if my opinion changes. I highly recommend it to Janeites, bibliophiles and fans of "chick lit."

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