Austenland
by Shannon Hale
(Bloomsbury, $19.95, G) ISBN  978-1-59691-285-4
****
Jane Austen fans will either love or loathe this novel, which by its very plot is forced to follow the mythic author's patterns of writing.  It's charming, witty, and to the point, though Hale doesn't have Austen's talent for the undercurrents of sarcasm (although her method of delivery is satisfactory in its own right).  In a way, as Austen was poking fun at the Society of her day, Hale is sniggering at fans as well as denouncers of Austen.

Jane Hayes has a secret: she's a closet Jane Austen-aholic. Or, more specifically, a Mr. Darcy-aholic, especially if Colin Firth happens to be portraying him, although she guiltily keeps her copy of the BBC's Pride and Prejudice hidden in a houseplant – which is discovered by her great aunt.  When said aunt dies, she bequeaths Jane a three-week "holiday" to Pembrook Place, which amounts to a re-enactment of things as they were during Jane Austen's time.

Jane decides this is as good a way as any to use her vacation time and perhaps break herself of the Mr. Darcy fantasy.  Jane, now going by Miss Erstwhile, quickly realizes, despite all of the fantasies she had, over the years, built around Jane Austen's plots, life in early-nineteenth-century England wasn't too much fun.  She gradually accustoms herself to the dress and titles and the speech patterns, but finds herself rebelling almost immediately against the obedience.

Which is how she stumbles across Martin, the rebellious gardener.  And kind of hooks up with him.  At least, until he dumps her.  Then Jane pretty much heads for the dumps, as she had promised herself no more dead-end relationships (in Jane's world that meant no more relationships, period.). Throwing caution to the wind and grasping propriety to her bosom, Jane throws herself wholeheartedly into the Jane Austen experience ...

This book was fun.  Unfortunately for the average reader, it comes with prerequisites.  To get the full effect of Austenland, you'll need to have at least read Pride and Prejudice, and Hale references numerous other authors of the time such as Anne Radcliffe and the Brontes.  A fan of Austen and the Brontes myself, I enjoyed by the earnestness and the sarcasm behind the work, and appreciated how Shannon Hale managed to make engaging characters without scratching into their psyches.  As Austen would have done, things, though seen from Jane Hayes's perspective, are shown at face value.  That's certainly not the only echo of Austen's style in this book, but it's the most impressive.  The unobtrusive, inoffensive romances in the book are lovely and humorous, and the secondary characters are hilarious in a chuckle-behind-your-fan kind of way.  And, since Austenland won't take any longer to read than watching Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, Austenland makes a wonderful little summer read that is doubly welcome in a season that has been plagued by drought.

--Sarrah Knight


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