Would Jane Austen be rolling over in her grave after reading the latest additions to the Austen-phile’s bookshelf? Au contraire: If Austen had an iPhone, she would likely be tweeting the praises of these three charming Austen pastiches and tributes—which may have readers reaching for the originals.
AN OVERLOOKED HEROINE
The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, former librarian Pamela Mingle’s first novel for adults, is as much a sequel to Pride and Prejudice as it is an homage. Mary Bennet has always been overshadowed by her four sisters. But now that they are all out of the house, Mary finds herself receiving the romantic overtures of Henry Walsh, a friend of her brother-in-law Charles Bingley. Inexperienced in romance, Mary worries that she is misreading Henry's intentions. Does she deserve love?
The more popular characters, like Elizabeth and Darcy, make appearances in the novel, but Mingle keeps her focus on Mary and her efforts to move past her childish—and, sometimes, obnoxious—ways. Writing in the first person, Mingle is able to explore Mary's inner life in a manner that Austen did not, giving her depth and helping the reader feel invested in her happiness. Mingle doesn’t try to imitate Austen or rewrite her classic novel. Instead, she gives contemporary readers a clever take on an overlooked character.
PUTTING A TWIST ON A CLASSIC
Countless romance novels and love stories have been born from Jane Austen novels. Add Katherine Reay's delightful debut, with intriguing characters and a well-developed plot, to that list. This is not a straight modernization, but rather a pastiche that stands as a tribute to the power of literature. An epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Knightley is made up of the letters and journals of Samantha "Sam" Moore, an orphan raised in the juvenile system in contemporary Chicago who writes letters to her mysterious benefactor.
Sam is an introvert, hiding in books, shunning personal relationships and, in general, failing to connect with others. After losing her job, she finds that she is the recipient of a special grant: She will be able to attend Northwestern and pursue a masters in journalism, provided that she keep Mr. Knightley apprised of her career through old-fashioned letter writing. Sam uses the letters to open up about her past, an act that allos her to finally accept love and forge relationships with people.
Because Sam hides behinds her favorite novels as a defense, Reay is easily able to weave quotes and storylines from several classics into her tale. Dear Mr. Knightley is a welcome addition to contemporary romance, but what makes it great is Reay’s ability to make the reader feel truly connected to her characters. Readers will get lost in Sam’s story, forgetting about other responsibilities and to-do lists.
MODERNIZING MATTERS OF THE HEART
The Austen project, HarperCollins’ commission of six well-known contemporary authors to provide modern takes on Austen’s completed novels, commences with a bang with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. Trollope, the best-selling author of 18 novels, has taken on a heavy mantle here. Her story is the same as Austen’s, but set in modern times, complete with cell phones, iPods and Facebook references.
The modern-day Dashwood family must adapt to a new life after the untimely death of their father, who had never legally married their mother. Left with no money and no home to live in, the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, along with their mother, Fanny, must adapt to a life without the security of inheritance, family name and status.
Trollope does an exceptional job remaining true to the original characters. She accurately captures Austen's classic theme of "head versus heart," even as she updates the characters in believable ways (Elinor, for example, is studying architecture). Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility reminds the reader that the world may be changing too quickly around us, but matters of the heart remain constant.