A hideous, plodding, ungraceful piece of mawkish fanfiction that succeeds neither as a mystery or as a pastiche of Austen's most beloved novel. Oy.
AlmA hideous, plodding, ungraceful piece of mawkish fanfiction that succeeds neither as a mystery or as a pastiche of Austen's most beloved novel. Oy.
Almost from page one, there are embarassing lapses of craft and tone. None of the economy or vibrance of Austen appears in these pages and the so-called plot is built around a "mystery" that was so hamhanded that I'd sussed the perpetrator within the first 50 pages. But that's not the worst of it. Some of the greatest characters in world literature reduced to the thinness of playing cards. Fancy-dress dialogue that humps along without import or impact. More than anything, this entire story has an air of workmanlike drudgery about it, as if a third of the way in James had realized she wasn't up to the task but soldiered through by force of duty. Apathy and sloppiness strangle this book a page at a time.
Any fiction that "expands" on an existing narrative must do heavy lifting (familiarizing fresh readers with the previous work, but also standing on its own merit). This book accomplishes neither. I cannot imagine WHAT possessed anyone to publish this outside of James successful track record as a crime novelist. If anything, that skill set should have been a deterrent. For some reasons of her own, James structures the entire experiment as a closed "country house" mystery with (essentially) a single location. As in the most inept mystery fiction, she treats the P&P characters as unchanging chess pieces sealed in aspic with a single defining character trait. No one here has a believable emotion or motivation. Unlike Austen, James presents a plot which is a flimsy, mechanical contrivance existing purely to generate tiffs and tizzies with no real weight or consequence to anyone. None of the pacing or movement or drama of an Austen novel is in evidence. And watching endless cooing and billing by the Darcys and the Bingleys had me reaching for the airsick bag often. THERE ARE NO STAKES. What lobotomized Jane Austen was P.D. James reading when this thing got cranked out? Where was the wit, bite, and wiliness of Austen's world?
I respect James as a mystery author, but this was appalling in most of its particulars: plot, diction, character, setting. For me the hardest thing to read were the incessant "remember when?" exposition nuggets by characters recounting many, many MAJOR events from Pride & Prejudice as if they were all recovering amnesiacs giving depositions in an imaginary courtroom. "Remember when she said to me... Remember when I asked you..." I can only assume the James felt like we might need a refresher course, so she has characters turn to each other and explain proposals, embarassments, arguments, scandal from P&P... as if everyone on the page has had a closed head injury in the intervening years. As if people reading THIS book wouldn't be familiar with the other greater novel's most critical scenes and lines. As if quoting Austen was the same thing as expanding upon her. As if Austen's characters are so wooden and static that they cannot manage to do anything that they have not already done 200 years ago for thir creator. As if "historicizing" Austen's characters didn't encumber some of English literature's most nimble creations with deadening, leaden weight.
And apparently James has no interest in the beloved characters AS characters as they neither act or speak like themselves (even when quoting their earlier dialogue), nor does she allow them to be changed by the (pointless/flaccid) events of this novel. The convoluted, digressive explanations for offpage actions in P&P derail this book repeatedly. James is so busy opining about events long past and unrelated that for long stretches she forgets that she's supposed to be, y'know, writing a book of her own. A simpering Elizabeth who now distrusts/dismisses Charlotte (Lucas) Collins on a whim and worried more about sick servants and social obligations than Wickham's invasion of her home? A Mr. Bennett who now sneaks off to hide from his wife's "flutterings and spasms" in the Pemberley library? A Darcy who traces his austerity to Oprah-ific childhood traumas and protects Wickham with little difficulty? Gack. Ick. This is in effect, a piece of inept P&P rhapsody which treats the main characters of its source material as the very boring, bourgeois blockheads they skewered so ruthlessly in Austen's novel. Which begs the question: if James cannot write the characters, if she had no sense of the subtlety or a feel for emotional plotting, why bother to write this book? Again, shades of the feeblest fanfiction by the most uncritical amateur... Death by blundering timidity. Ugh.
What can you expect if you DO read this hash? No characterization to speak of. Swampy stretches of pointless research ladeled in as if to fill wordcount requirements. A slim, idiotic "mystery" that telegraphs its solution from around page 45. Lots of suspiciously procedural mystery writing in "ye olde" Regency-speak. Dangling plot threads and unshocking "surprises" by the barrel. Long, long passages of obligatory backstory delivered in massive unparagraphed chunks as if, by parroting some of Austen's diction, James might swipe some of the spark and effervescence. Not hardly. Ugh. Endless, ridiculous requotings of "good bits" from Austen's writing lifted DIRECTLY from the six major novels that jarred every time I stumbled over them.
Apparently, James just liked certain phrases so darned much she decided to plunk them in wholesale and the effect is uncomfortably awkward. These regurgitations resonate not as loving homage but as failure of imagination and craft. To take one example, Elizabeth can apparently ONLY be described as having "fine eyes." Wickham must always be tagged with the phrase "quite wild." And Pemberly is "polluted" THREE times in this book, and Lady Catherine doesn't even show up to use her own words. And a good thing, if the clunky, leaden Darcy and Elizabeth here are any indication, any of Austen's creations who don't turn up for the "scandalous" proceedings got off lightly. And don't get me started on the weird easter eggs giving "clever" shout-outs to other Austen characters (Harriet Smith, Anne Elliot). Again, in what universe does any of this posturing resemble Austen or even a competent piece of fiction? James knows better. Her publishers know better. Her readers should know better. Are people so bamboozled by the spectre of "great literature" and an éminence grise that they'll swallow this kind of muck uncritically?
This entire book felt feeble and awkward and a little embarassing. If you are an Austen fan you'll loathe it; if you are a mystery fan you'll find it juvenile and obvious; if you're an educated reader you'll feel insulted and bored. Neither fish nor fowl, the book exists as a kind of a trout with wings (or sparrow with gills) expiring painfully and repetitively for 280 unwitty pages. About halfway through I realized that this is EXACTLY the kind of Austen pastiche enjoyed by people who don't actually read Austen, and who believe that all period fiction just needs some velvet and horses and servants to thrill us to our middlebrow Masterpiece Theatre marrows. When I'd finished, I tried to imagine the intended audience... Best I could come up with: elderly suburban nonreaders who love telly but can't follow any story without coaching from well-meaning relatives and a repeated peeks at the TV Guide blurb.