Time on to-read: Two years
Reason for not picking up: The last one I read of his was only okay- I have strong opinions about the Romantic poets, okay?
Reason for finally picking it up off the shelf: I’ve got time, and everyone keeps raving about his Austen attempts. I was starting to feel like I was going to lose my Austen fan card or something.
Verdict: I don’t regret picking it up, but there is a reason Austen is Austen and many, many other people are definitely not.
I don’t have a good track record with Austen pastiches. And it’s gotten worse as time has gone on. At first it was kind of fun to go for the “Austen, but with all the sexy bits you wished were there”, but that got old fast. As did the people who basically just borrowed her world and characters as a selling point and then proceeded to write novels based on each of the minor characters that seemed to have little or nothing to do with the actual books. (Look, I love a change in perspective as much as anyone- <i>The Affair</i> is one of my favorite shows, and I loved <i>Wicked</i> like all of you when I was a pre-teen girl.) Also, after the initial half-smile the concept of Austen and zombies induced in me, I was kind of over it. (Did anyone else think that whole thing was better suited to be a viral SNL sketch idea rather than a whole book? Never mind a whole series of them on the same topic. I think we pretty much get the joke by page ten- what else are you doing for the other two hundred pages to keep me reading?)
And I really didn’t think that Jude Morgan was necessarily going to break my track record on this one. I’d read one book of his before, <i>Passion</i>, which focuses on the most famous Romantic poets and the women in their lives, and while I liked a lot of it, it was definitely uneven and I wished that it had been better. I was expecting more of the same here.
And while it wasn’t a universal denial of my expectations, this was much better than I thought. My hat is absolutely off to Morgan with his handling of the narrative voice in this novel. His opening monologue and every interstital one sounded confidently Heyer or Austen-like, with the same dry wit and inisghtful observational tone that reassures the audience that we’re in the hands of someone who really knows what they’re doing. Some turns of phrase were truly well-crafted and made me smile- Morgan understands how to bite while maintaining a totally bland face and does it super well. That was my absolute favorite part of the novel, and it never got less good. I also really liked the idea of the plot itself that gave him a lot to work with- two children who have been ruled over by their domineering father who have been finally set free to make their own decisions, and the probable consequences of that.
I also thought that his focus was well and truly on character observation and moral decisions, which is in actuality what Austen is about, much though Hollywood would like to present you with windswept moors and Matthew McFayden and tell you otherwise. I really appreciated that Morgan understood that and understood that that’s what many of his readers keep hoping to find when they get Austen comparisons thrown at them about books, and rarely do. He also drew a couple of minor characters very well- the brother and sister team of Tom and Sophie was well, amusingly and pitilessly done, and they would have fit in every Heyer novel I’ve ever read seamlessly.
Unfortunately, while these are accomplishments enough in themselves, they raised expectations just high enough that I found myself disappointed with several other aspects of the novel. I really think Morgan had a problem with pacing in this novel- some sections took far, far too long, and some we didn’t get near enough time with. (He skips over an entire period of mourning and adjustment in favor of getting to the main plot- and while I get that, I also think we missed out on some things we should have seen. He moved his main characters on far too quickly.) I also think that pacing really affected the resolution- which again, took far too long after we discovered what the solution was going to be and then didn’t provide the wrap up of the relationship that we were all looking for- he set it up that it was going to be an Emma-like chapters long thing where we would be satisfied with missing pieces, and then we never got that.
I also thought that his rather obvious remixing of Austen characters and characteristics was kind of distracting. I spent way too much time pinpointing the Darcy, the Knightley, the Lizzie, etc., and keeping a running list in my head of which characteristic was divvied up where in which character. I think he intended to use it to subconsciously trick his readers into expecting one thing, when in fact a different thing was going to happen- it was too much like a trick, and too obvious to work anyway. I guessed really early on that I was being set up- and I didn’t like the sensation that I was distracted by that whole business to begin with- can we get back to putting people in uncomfortable/funny/new/interesting/mundane situations and seeing how they react again? Can we get back to discussing why and how people make decisions?
Reminds me a bit of the argument I see going on around the new Star Wars movie- how much of a direct homage is too much of a good thing? It’s one thing to use the essence and the spirit of the thing- it’s another thing to wear the thing’s pants and copy its hairstyle to make people like you. I feel like there was a bit too much imitation rather than inspiration going on here.
That said, I really do have to admit that this is one of the most successful Austen-compared books that I’ve read, and again, Morgan really does understand what was absolutely genius about Austen (and Heyer, for that matter), and his ability to confidently put himself in those narrative shoes was pretty amazing. And the fact that there wasn’t even one sexy midnight rendezvous at Pemberley is <i>immensely</i> in its favor- he’s going some way to help Austen fans defend the fact that far too many people get her wrong.
I look forward to reading another one of his soon. I hear good things about <i>Indiscretion</>, so that’s on my radar, along with <i>An Accomplished Woman</i> (which seems like a <i>Persuasion</i> homage, so I want to see where that goes). I’ll see you at the next one!