Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review and Thoughts: Austenland

Austenland (2007) by Shannon Hale

Back Jacket: Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man--perhaps because of her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths to her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own? In this addictive, charming, and compassionate story, Shannon Hale brings out the Jane Austen obsessive in all of us.

Review: This review comes in four stages that chronicle my impressions of the book from the beginning--before I'd cracked the spine--to the end. I do this in a nod to the fact that Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions. Fun fact for you, there.

My first impression--i.e. looking at the cover, because I constantly judge books by their covers--told me I was going to enjoy the book. Largely because it is very clearly a rom-com, perhaps with young, posh, jet-setting people. It would not be particularly memorable, but I fully anticipated some laughs and (hopefully) some delighted squealing.

My second impression was that I did not like this book. It just seemed average, and thus disappointing. Despite my reservations, I didn't put it down.

My third impression was that I did like the book. It was turning out to be exactly the kind of book I'd hoped for! I liked the clever set-up (Jane is actually role-playing at an Austen-themed resort where they have all sorts of strict interaction rules just like in the old days!) There were enough dapper young men (hired to play their roles, they were not guests at the resort) to keep it interesting. Jane had to constantly wonder if a flirtation was the actor letting some small part of his real self slip through the character, or if it was a duty of his job to flirt with the guests. The answer, in case you're wondering, is both. You just don't know who's doing what. Which is what's great: you don't know who she's going to end up with--or if she'll end up with anyone at all--until the last few pages of the book.

My fourth impression is really what the book left me thinking about afterward. Even though I liked the book, it made me a little uncomfortable that the "usual" guests were depicted as kind of pathetic and living apart from reality. One guest's character was Miss Charming, and the story she'd chosen was that she was a lovely 22 year old come to visit the Pembrook family. Except the woman roleplaying her was in her fifties, had big old breasts too bountiful to be contained by a corset, and kept saying ridiculous things like "tallyho!" and "what-what" all while hounding after the men. There are several conversations about the "type" of women who pay to vacation there and pretend they are living in Austen's time, being courted by sharp young men in long coats and riding boots, and none of the conversations are flattering ones.

Part of the book's point was about how women (like Miss Charming and Jane herself) are set up with all these romantic expectations by the media (i.e. "look at all these women who are waiting for their real-life Darcy when there is no real-life Darcy!") But it's kind of hard to take that message seriously when the book itself contributes to that same fairytale narrative. {MINOR SPOILER} Jane gets with her real-life Darcy by the end of the book. It's like He's Just Not That Into You, where you are told, "HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. OH, BUT WAIT, YES HE IS. EVERYTHING IS HAPPY-FINE."

And the other thing is this: Jane, who is all those normative things (young, slender, white, heterosexual, middle/upper class) learns to relax and gets the happy ending. But Miss Charming (older, overweight, ungainly) does not. She is just there to be a ridiculous contrast to Jane, who can think to herself, "I am so glad I am not like that. I hope no one else thinks I am like that." All of a sudden, "like that" becomes a set of traits to which readers must worriedly compare themselves. I'll admit that the idea of an "Austenland" sounded cool to me. How fun would that be to wear the dresses, ride around in a carriage, and stroll the park with some man-candy (preferably not an actor) on your arm? But then I had to feel all squicky with myself because the people who want to do that (Miss Charming) and the people who are thrown into it and make the best of their situation (Jane) are portrayed very differently. The portrayal and language constructs an Other out of Miss Charming. I'm not saying there aren't people in the world who are hard to be around, or that we can't have ridiculous characters because it's politically incorrect, but it's important to ask: what characteristics or traits do we give the blatantly ridiculous characters? And what traits do we give to those characters we are supposed to root for?

Conclusion: I'm still kind of collecting my thoughts about this book, which is why I've declined to actually rate it. There were some empowering parts as well as problematic parts. I thoroughly enjoyed it for it's fun factor. It was an absolutely delightful romp with a likeable main character, dashing romantic prospects, and a satisfying end. On the other hand, I still had my issues with it. It can be hard to balance pure, surface enjoyment of something with the intellectual knowledge that its underlying themes conflict with values I hold. Like finding out that Beauty and the Beast, despite my love for it, can also be seen as a narrative about staying with someone who abuses you because your love can change them.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?


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