Monday, July 25, 2011

8. Austenland - Shannon Hale (2007)

"Girls! Look who is here at last. Miss Amelia Heartwright. Miss Heartwright, may I present Miss Elizabeth Charming and my niece, Miss Jane Erstwhile."
    The three ladies curtsied and bowed their heads, and Jane noticed how natural and elegant Miss Heartwright's curtsy seemed. She had clearly been here before and come back for more, one of Mrs. Wattlesbrook's ideal clients. She would know the system, the players, the language and the customs. She would be a formidable foe.

For many fans of Jane Austen and its various screen adaptations, Austenland is an enticing title. However, while I am a fan of the screen versions, adaptations of the novel kind invariably end up sounding more like fan-fiction, and can be a bit...well icky, especially if one of the aspects of Jane Austen you enjoy is its wholesomeness and, simply put, lack of touching. You could argue either way whether this puts a focus more on love or lust, personality or looks, but in Austen novels anyway it is definitely the heroine's character that wins the man over, and I like that. So understandably being a bit hesitant of a book called Austenland, not helped by the back cover blurb including 'For the woman with everything except a Mr. Darcy of her own, an invitation to Austenland,' I began this Shannon Hale novel hoping for the best. In fact I might not even have heard of it if not for JJ Field from the 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey being cast as the novel's hero in it's very own indie flick. But we'll get to that later.

So the basic plot of Austenland revolves around 30-something Jane (of course) who is bequeathed a holiday to the secretive Pembroke Park where guests can experience authentic regency England, complete with Austen-worthy romance. Despite being a fan of cheesey films and rom-coms, I am very suspect of chick-lit, usually because of how unrealistic, silly and unsatisfying I've found it to be so far. A bit ironically then I ended up loving Austenland, while the majority of the reviews I've read on have been completely opposite. In comparisons both to chick-lit and Shannon Hale's other hugely popular novels, many found Jane to be unrealistic, the premise contrived and the storyline cliched. Looking at Austenland as a whole I can understand these reviews as it is cliched in the way it assimilates certain stock scenarios and events, but despite this I thought Shannon Hale's narrative was original and incredibly funny. I laughed out loud very often and found Jane to be relatable in her worries, her determination, her self-assurance and humour. I will be the first to say that this book is utter fantasy and completely unbelievable, but isn't that the same with Jane Austen novels? It is despite social and financial status that Austen's heroines find their happy endings. Shannon Hale retains much of the same wholesomeness and fun found in the original novels, while giving it a modern twist that was both amusing and endearing. It is a world where you are as pretty, witty and composed as you'd like to be normally and yet still remaining, like Jane, slightly awkward, nervous and using odd words like "huzzah." My favourite line so far? '"Argh," Jane arghed,' page 18.

Perhaps you need a particular sense of humour to love this novel as much as I do, but on the off-chance that you are such a person, I recommend this book to you. And yes please try and force this onto all of your female acquaintance just as I did to my sister, who enjoyed it immensely and now quotes Miss Charming at every turn.

4 stars

Regarding the film adaptation - this is currently being filmed in England and the lovely Miss Hale is blogging from the set on a wonderfully regular basis. The cast includes Keri Russell, Bret McKenzie, JJ Field and Jennifer Coolidge. It is being directed by Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and produced by Twilight's Stephanie Meyers. An interesting mix if ever I saw one.

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