Saturday, November 7, 2009

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo

Disclosure: I am not a fan of chick-lit. Also not a fan of Jane Austen sequels or fanfiction, in general. In fact, I probably shouldn't be reviewing this at all, since I began reading this with prejudice. (But no pride).  I used to read chick lit until I figured out that most of it is a waste of time.  Clever, witty novels about young singletons in the big city are few and far between.  Curse you, Helen Fielding, for actually writing a good Jane Austen knockoff!  She has inspired multitudes of mediocrity after the success of Bridget Jones's Diary.  Which she couldn't even duplicate herself, unfortunately.

Anyway, in a moment of weakness, I decided to make an exception after seeing this book amongst the multitudes of JA-inspired fiction at the recent JASNA meeting in Philadelphia (though I was not inspired to spend hard cash on it; I held out and got it from the library).  Nevertheless, after seeing the melodromatic cover art and snarky title, I was hoping for something witty.  But this was not to be. Basically, it's pretty standard chick lit with a Jane Austen connection, albeit one that is somewhat academic in nature, since the writer is trying to include some actual facts about JA's life.

The setup:  Emma (of course! There's an Austen connection right there! Well, at least she isn't named Jane or Elizabeth), a thirtysomething career women, has fled from Texas to London after her nasty ex-husband and his mistress have ruined her academic career at a prestigious university. Conveniently, Emma has a cousin -- half-French, so she is tres-cool -- has a charming townhouse which is conveniently empty at the moment.  Well, except for the convenient presence of her former male BFF friend from grad school, who is alsostaying there; is conveniently hot, and, naturally -- who was madly in love with her until she married their Casanova-esque professor.  Conveniently! Anyway, Emma is trying to resolve her hurt pride and simultaneously resurrect her flagging career as a JA scholar by finding some priceless, super-secret Jane Austen letters, never before seen by the public. Awesome!  Seems there is a mysterious eccentric Englishwoman who has (conveniently) decided Emma is potentially worthy of this enormous coup.  She is sent on mini-quests all over England, following in Jane Austen's historic footsteps.   She's also forced to make Big Decisions about her own career path, relationships with her family, and possible love with said hottie.

Although this book includes mildly entertaining theories about Jane Austen's missing letters and lost loves, the only thing I really liked about it was that it includes background about Jane Austen's life, which most fans could easily pick up in any decently written biography (I'm still working on that; hopefully some reviews will follow in the near future).  Emma's pretty whiny and self-absorbed (but hey, so is Jane Austen's Emma!), but overall I found too many plot holes, too many contrivances, at least one major mistake -- she's supposed be an Austen scholar and there's a huge error about Mansfield Park!  Not to mention the lack of well-developed characters, other than our heroine.  It's a pretty easy read, and if you like chick lit and Jane Austen, this might be the book for you.  Just not the book for me.  I should really just stick with the real thing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Emma by Jane Austen

Oh, Emma. How I love you, and yet, how you frustrate and annoy me. Even Jane Austen wrote that she had created a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like." So there you have it. Emma Woodhouse is unique among Jane Austen's heroines because she's rich and doesn't need to worry about finding herself a good husband. However, this means that she's got lots of time on her hands, so she's basically a busybody and decides to match up all of her unmarried friends. Unfortunately, she's also an insufferable snob, and thinks she knows who's best for everyone. This eventually backfires when she realizes she may have messed up her own chances with the one man she really loves. In true Austen fashion, all ends well, though not exactly as first expected.

The first time I read this, I was so frustrated by Emma's character that I wanted to throw the book across the room (heretical behavior for a bibliophile!). But this is just proof that Emma is so believeable and her character is so well-developed. Jane Austen makes her come to life. And the other characters, such as the chatterbox Miss Bates and the obnoxious Mrs. Elton, are so real I wanted to yell at them too. However, I will say that Emma, like David Copperfield, could have used a little editing. Some of the passages just seem to go on and on. That's probably why it's Jane Austen's longest book.

This time around I actually read very little of the print version, and mostly listened to the excellent audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson (on Naxos Audiobooks). If you've seen the 1996 film adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, you might remember that Stevenson played the obnoxious and insufferable Mrs. Elton. This audiobook is absolutely wonderful and her narration is spot-on, making all the characters distinct. I even forgot that it was a woman narrating the men's parts as well, which I think is one sign of great audiobook narrator. If it wasn't so darned expensive I'd buy my own copy, but it's more than $80 plus shipping for the set of 13 CDs and $45 for the digital download. Still, if you can get it from your library, it's worth a listen.

Some people think that listening to an audiobook is somehow cheating -- The New York Times published a really interesting article on this very subject. Personally, I don't think so, as long as it's an unabridged version -- it's not as if you're reading the Cliffs Notes. I think the audio forces me to slow down and pay more attention -- sometimes I get so caught up in the plot of a book that I rush through to find out what's going to happen next. Also, some readers like Ms. Stevenson are so talented, they bring all the characters and situations to life, which makes it so much more memorable and enjoyable; but of course, some narrators can potentially ruin a book altogether. Also, didn't the oral tradition of storytelling precede written narration? It's an ancient tradition. I don't think it's "cheating" the same way that watching a movie adaptation is. And I am a pushover for an Austen adaptation. I think I've seen them all, several times. I'm just waiting for the newest Emma adaptation, coming to PBS in January.  I'll be sure and post my thoughts on that as well.

Note:  A version of this review originally appeared on my other blog,