Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hale's Austenland [Review]


Title: Austenland

Author: Shannon Hale (her blog)

Copyright: 2007, ISBN 1596912855

Length: 196 pages

Genre: Romance (chick lit)

Summary: Jane Hayes is a modern thirty-something graphic designer in New York City. Her great-aunt, interested in her welfare, provides her with an opportunity to spend three weeks experiencing Regency England. Hayes will be allowed to act out her fantasy of living in a Jane Austen novel, dressing and interacting with other visitors to Pembroke Park. (If you watched the PBS special, Regency House Party, you have familiarity with the basic premise.) Like so many women her age, Hayes has a mental image of the characters of Pride and Prejudice as the characters were portrayed in the 1995 A&E mini-series of that novel. Tired of fantasizing about Colin Firth as well as being disappointed in the men she encounters daily, Hayes decides the immersive therapy of the Pembroke Park experience is what she needs to dissipate the specter of Mr. Darcy and get on with her life. This short, light novel tells of the convergence in Hayes' world of Regency manners and modern male-female interactions.

Extract: Her heart was teetering precariously, and she almost put out her arms to balance herself. She didn't like to see them together. Martin, the luscious man who'd made her laugh and kept her standing on real earth and Mr. Nobley, who had bgun to make the fake world feel as comfortable as her own bed. She stood on the curve of the path, her feet hesitating where to go.

Also Relevant: I have nothing against chick lit per se; sometimes one's mood can only be satisfied by finding something in that vein and reading it until the mood passes. Forced to list the parameters for "chick lit", I would say that works in the genre tend to feature female protagonists bumbling through the demands of modern life, seeking professional success as a woman in a man's world while ultimately finding "True Love". For the most part, chick lit offers a humorous perspective on these attempts. The authors aren't expected by their readers to render particularly realistic characterization, but are expected to flex the structure and flow of conventional romance novels while still delivering a happy ending. Chick-lit is a marketable commodity -- entertainment, not literature, generally unremarkable.

Hale's Austenland likely meets the expectations of chick-lit readers. By that I mean, it's really not awful and, in the right mood, could even be found enjoyable. It isn't entirely predictable in the flow of events, but is predictable with regard to the underlying premise of all chick lit -- that a woman possessed of enough self-confidence to believe herself worthy of real love will ultimately succeed in her attempts to profitably use her talents and win Mr. Right. Hale includes recognizable references to various Austen novels and suggests parallels between Jane's situation at Pembroke Park and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Shannon Hale has been a best-selling author of children's and young adult books; this is her livelihood. It is possible that Austenland was a commercial attempt to continue her relationship with a readership entering into the more adult phases of life. I don't think she's entirely successful with this attempt, but neither is Austenland a bad book. It is simply lightweight. To borrow a conventional assessment frequently found in book reviews for librarians, it is suitable for inclusion in the collections of large public libraries with respectable acquisition budgets.