As a lover of all things antiquated, I don’t read a lot of modern or contemporary fiction. I have recently been trying to catch up with some of the well-regarded works of the second half of the 20th century, but I got about 40 pages into an “absurdist” novel (The Crying of Lot 49 specifically), and I just couldn’t do it. All that (unnecessary) information being shared, I do like to read popular fiction sometimes. Case in point, Shannon Hale’s Austenland. After Heather posted that movie trailer last week, I looked into the book that inspired it. After finding it available as an E-book from the library (wee!), I went for it and checked it out.
Let me start out by saying, I enjoyed this book while finding it annoying. In the first few chapters, the writing style really bugged me. Hale is primarily a young adult writer and Austenland was her first novel for adults. The writing did not strike me as any more mature than a typical YA novel, though. In the first few chapters, there were sentences like these:
“Argh,” she arghed.
“It’s not something you tell your single best friend. It’d be like rubbing your nose in the poop of my happiness.”
Not a good start, in my opinion. The poop of my happiness? Come on, that doesn’t even make sense. The “Argh” line I think I would accept coming from someone with word-play cred like Nabokov (I do enjoy some 20th century fiction), but in this context, it just irked me. I pushed through this stuff, though, because I was really interested to get into the story. The story is about a young, 30-something woman who is so obsessed with the fantasy of Mr. Darcy that she can’t be happy in a real relationship. Her aunt bequeaths her a trip to a place called Austenland, where (seemingly exclusively female) visitors live in an immersive Regency world complete with handsome actors paid to woo them. The fact that these men are very nearly prostitutes is not at all addressed by the novel and does not seem to be an issue. I found that a little disturbing, but perhaps I’m thinking too hard about things. The interesting question the author has the protagonist (named Jane…”Ugh,” I ughed) face is whether or not the feelings her Regency dreamboats express towards her, and those she feels in return, are real or fantasy.
Once I got into the story, I definitely enjoyed it. I burned through the book in two days which is fast for me even with an easy read. The story was totally fun – enough so that I was able to get past the overly-simplistic and too colloquial narration from the protagonist. I found the premise a bit misleading, though. I thought the idea would be that the protagonist was obsessed with Austen’s works in book form, but it seems like she is much more hung up on the movie versions of all the novels. While some of the cinematic versions of Austen’s works have been great, the real art is in the written word. To become overwhelmed with the fantasy presented on the screen strikes me as shallow. I didn’t believe “Jane” was an Austen fan so much as a movie-romance fan, and that took something away from her character. I can get behind a reader lost in the worlds of her favorite books; I have less sympathy for a character pining for Colin Firth in breeches to the point of dysfunction in real life.
I also found the ending totally unrealistic and a bit bizarre. In fact, Jane’s return to real life at the end is when the plot takes the most fantastical turn. Still, I did relish the thought of what it might be like to live in the Regency world for a few weeks. I appreciate that Hale made a point to show the “life of leisure” that upper-class women lived to be almost unbearably dull at times. Hale also writes romantic tension well – I felt engaged in Jane’s relationships with the male leads and was sincerely hoping she’d end up with one in particular. For the devoted Darcy lover who likes breezy chick-lit, this book is a fun, very easy read. For the real Austen fan, this book is enjoyable but ultimately not satisfying.