Ballet is not my thing. In fact, my sweetie once asked if he could get me tickets to the ballet for my birthday, and I told him that ballet tickets would be a gift to himself; if he wanted to give me a present, he should buy me tickets to a Lakers game! That’s my notion of ballet.
So it’s not surprising that some aspects of The Muse went right over my head. I can’t picture the different moves, or even really understand the emotions they are supposed to evoke. What I was able to understand was the electric reaction our hero and heroine (Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, for anyone not yet clued in) felt the first time they touched, when Darcy used Elizabeth to help him choreograph a pas de deux. The vivid yet tasteful description of that scene certainly twisted my knickers!
Back up. In this variation on Pride and Prejudice set in the present day, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are dancers in the Ballet Theater of New York, and William Darcy is a former dancer turned freelance choreographer who is invited in to create a new dance for the current season. Many of the familiar character names from Pride and Prejudice turn up, some names more or less modified, though their characters don’t always match the original (Georgiana in particular is completely different) and the plot is not closely followed. The emphasis here is on the romance, which to my mind is a different genre from what Jane Austen wrote, so the focus and the arc of the story diverge considerably. In fact, I’m not sure using the character names from Pride and Prejudice was even necessary; a story about, say, Ashley Smith and Shane Matthews would still have had echoes of P&P without raising expectations that certain situations and conversations would be found. Though such a novel would have been harder to sell to Meryton Press, no doubt.
So why five stars? Because this novel works perfectly well on its own terms, leaving aside the Pride and Prejudice parallels. I enjoyed the setting in the professional dance world, and that world was described in ways that allowed an uninitiated person like myself to understand enough to become emotionally involved in the dramas and conflicts that arose. I’m not personally a fan of sex scenes, but the few that appeared were handled very well (not so explicit that I was squirming), and the many more scenes involving frustrated attraction were handled even better. Considering that this is modern romance and not a period piece, it seemed entirely appropriate that the details of how William and Elizabeth worked out their relationship should have been elaborated in more detail at the end. It made them more credible and well rounded. Other changes served to make the story work well on its own terms.
Because this is a modern novel and not a pale imitation of Jane Austen, Jessica Evans felt free to use techniques not found in Georgian fiction. I particularly liked one scene, which took place before William and Elizabeth came to see eye to eye, in which the point of view switched back and forth between the two characters during an uncomfortable dinner date. Seeing their thoughts allowed us to grasp vividly just how wide was the gulf between them. Also perhaps because this is a modern novel, the characters in general expressed themselves more freely, were ruder to one another, and behaved in more extreme ways (e.g., in the original, Caroline Bingley might contemplate sabotage of Elizabeth, but here she gets to act it out, in a scene that allows echoes of Cinderella to creep in). There is a tendency among modern adaptors to make Jane Austen’s comedy broader; this sometimes bothers me, but didn’t in the case of The Muse because the story wasn’t slavishly following the original.
There were moments, especially early in the book before the story took on its own momentum, when I felt the presence of a writer who was a little constrained by the “Austen variation” genre. I hope that writer comes to the fore in future books. One such moment came when Elizabeth has changed into street clothes and gone back to the rehearsal room, where she hears some criticism that she shouldn’t have heard: “As she spun around, her sneakers shrieked against the floor.” The shrieking of the rubber soles on a wood floor is a sharply observed detail that also works to express Elizabeth’s inwardly screaming thoughts, thoughts she is not in a position to express. I also recall a wonderful reference to “the noisy privacy of Columbus Avenue.”
When I wrote my first novel, I used Pride and Prejudice as a crutch; diving deep into that novel and adapting it allowed me to learn a great deal about writing fiction. Perhaps it served the same purpose for Jessica Evans, and I hope that, going forward, she’ll let go of the crutch and give free rein to that original, perceptive writer inside.