Thursday, 18 August 2011

Review: Austenland by Shannon Hale

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined. 
Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen; or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It's all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr Darcy of her own?

Oh my word this book was brilliant. I stumbled across it on a late night trawl of Amazon and fell straight into it as soon as it arrived. It’s a very short read, the book is less than two hundred pages long, but it certainly packs a lot into that.

Hale writes with the witty elegance of someone who has watched (and read) ‘Pride and Prejudice’ one too many times and is secretly living out a fantasy through this novel. It’s delicious in every way. The writing is brilliantly witty and clever, the heroine a fabulous mixture of humour, love worn and desperation for adventure – and the boys really quite swoonworthy.

The further in we go the more we learn about Jane’s past (and failed) loves, and she becomes more than just a girl looking for her Darcy – she’s well-constructed with enough engaging backstory that this whole charade makes complete sense.
She is exactly the type of Lizzie Bennet female that makes books like this so compelling to read. Without a good heroine romances are sunk.

It was one of those books that makes you curl up in a ball, giggling like a crazy person, because what’s happening in the pages is just so delicious, and so perfect, that you want to keep reading it for ever, and then you want to shove it under a boys nose and say ‘that! There! That is what I want! Why do you never understand this!’ Because no matter how much we’d like them to, they never seem to quite manage the levels of romance in real life as they do in books.

There’s enough intrigue to keep the pace up and fresh – you’re never quite certain who is playing and who isn’t, and if people are playing, what are they hiding?

I did find some of the other women a little bit cringey, which distracted me a bit from the otherwise very good banter. However, it was only a minor grump compared to the rest of this box of delights.

Highly enjoyable and a quick, intelligent read, this offers a nice modern twist with a throw back to pure Austen, and an avenue of pure escapism. As well as making me wonder if it really is possible to visit Austenland to find my Mr Darcy?

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