My Take on Two New Austen-Inspired Books

My Take on Two New Austen-Inspired Books

The Marriage Plot

I was hooked on the premise of The Marriage Plot after hearing Eugenides discuss Jane Austen’s novels on NPR. Some of the finest works of English literature–Austen included–are structured around courtship and marriage. In earlier centuries, marriage meant everything for a woman’s social and economic future, even for her very survival. Eugenides explains:

I envy writers who came from a world where social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots. I couldn’t, being an American born in 1960. … I didn’t think it was possible to write a Jane Austen novel now, and in fact, it isn’t. But I did want to traffic in the same ideas.

For his new novel The Marriage Plot, Eugenides constructs a love triangle of 3 Brown University students, and the plot does indeed revolve around who will marry whom. Mitchell loves Madeleine, who loves Leonard, who loves Madeleine, who likes Mitchell.

I loved the concept, but Eugenides’s Marriage Plot fell flat for me. He writes beautiful prose, and fleshes out the inner lives of the two men with sympathy and realism, but Madeleine feels feels heavy and wooden. Good writing can’t make up for a lacking heroine.

The plot is propelled forward by Madeleine’s wrestling with the meaning of love, and later of marriage–and by Leonard’s mental illness. Eugenides says of his decision to make Leonard a manic-depressive:

I had the idea to have [Madeleine] be in love with a manic-depressive because at times this person was the most engaging, the most energetic, the most exciting person she’d ever met, the most intelligent — and at other times, the most depressed, the most needy, the most insufferable. And that just appealed to me as a difficulty in love greater than most, so of course, it was good fodder from the novelist.

It was good fodder for a novel, but I wish that Madeleine had seemed a little more human as she struggled through her relationship with Leonard.

(Many of you will want to know that The Marriage Plot is heavy on drugs, sex, and language. Proceed with caution, okay?)

If you love the idea of the marriage plot, I recommend picking up Cheryl Mendelson’s Morningside Heights trilogy. (Yes, the same Cheryl Mendelson of Home Comforts fame!)

Death Comes to Pemberley

I don’t read fan fiction, but I do love mysteries, so I decided to make an exception for the Austen-inspired Death Comes to Pemberley by British mystery writer P.D. James.

The novel is set on the grounds of Pemberley, some 5 years after the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane. Captain Denny is murdered in the Pemberley forest late at night, and Wickham and Lydia are with him. The rest of the book sets out to unravel what happened that night.

This story never drew me in, and no wonder: the plot revolves around Wickham, and he’s never been a compelling character. He’s not dastardly enough to be interesting, and not engaging enough to draw my sympathies. In Death Comes to Pemberley, he’s not useful as a plot device like he was in Pride and Prejudice ; here, he’s the linchpin of the plot. But Wickham can’t hold the story together.

I love Jane Austen, but the extended references to the events of Pride and Prejudice are tiresome. The first reference to other Austen characters—the Elliot family of Persuasion—was light and fun, but I groaned when James trotted out Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse as well. That awkward mention–like so much in Death Comes to Pemberley–was too heavy-handed for this story to bear.

If you want a good British mystery, steer clear of Death Comes to Pemberley and pick up something by Dorothy Sayers instead.

Readers, do you love fanfiction, or hate it?

31 comments | Comment

31 comments

  1. Jamie says:

    I, too, stay away from fan fiction. The only positive exception I ever made to that rule was Scarlett, a fan-fic sequel to Gone With the Wind. It stayed surprisingly true to the characters and intentions of the original.

    • MamabearJD says:

      I wasn’t going to comment but was thinking “I hate fan fiction BECAUSE of the GWTW sequel!” I couldn’t even give it a chance! I guess I am set in my ways. 🙂

  2. I have to admit that I am bummed by your (more in-depth than on goodreads) review of “Death at Pemberley” and am now wondering if I want to try it at all. I loved the plot idea (being a huge mystery fan, myself), but pulling in characters from other Austen books is just right over the top. Boo. 🙁

    Have you ever read the book about Darcy and Elizabeth and their five daughters? I, like you, stay away from books that are based upon classics (I mean, really? Come up with your OWN original idea – Austen did!), but that one sounds…ok.

    • Anne says:

      Carrie, it took me a few days after I finished reading it to put my finger on the crux of the problem, which is that Wickham can’t support the plot. But that’s in my opinion–and maybe yours will be different!

      Please let me know what you think if you do decide to read it!

    • Anne says:

      Is that Mr Darcy’s Daughters? It’s been recommended to me, but I haven’t actually read it. Let me know if you do!

  3. I never tend to read fiction books that are “add ons” to a classic, but my mom gave me some lost memoirs of Jane Austen something or other, and I had the same reaction. Just uh. Not great. You can’t add to Jane Austen’s genius. 🙂

  4. karen says:

    I’ve seen other similarly blah responses to _Death Comes to Pemberly_ so I’d crossed it off my list, but I’d still been keen on reading _Marriage Plot_ – maybe I’ll take your suggestion skip right to the Cheryl Mendelson books.

    • Anne says:

      Karen, The Marriage Plot still has a lot going for it: excellent writing, interesting characters (well, the men are interesting), and Eugenides’s depiction of mental illness is fascinating (and from what I’ve read, very true). It didn’t live up to the hype, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading, necessarily.

      Also I thought the ending–which certainly surprised me–was elegantly done.

  5. Count me in as sad to hear that “Death at Pemberley” fell short for you. As a big P.D. James fan and a (cautious and discerning) fan of (some) P&P fan fiction, I couldn’t imagine that it would be anything but wonderful. At least the “new” Sherlock Holmes is supposed to live up to the glory of the original(s) . . .

  6. I liked Death Comes to Pemberley, but I’m a huge PD James fan, and I enjoy her slow-paced books and methodical characterizations. I do agree that as a frequent P&P rereader the many mentions back to it seemed a bit heavy-handed, but I got to thinking that she probably needed to do that in case someone read her book who hadn’t actually read P&P.

    I wouldn’t say I loved Death Comes to Pemberley, but I enjoyed it. And I liked Wickham and Georgiana and some of the servants being nuanced characters than they were in P&P. The only part that bugged me was how Colonel Fitzwilliam’s character had altered — he was much less likeable, but hey, that happens to some guys as the age. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Thanks, Jessica–I appreciate you sharing a more enthusiastic review! (And I totally agree about Colonel Fitzwilliam–what was that about??)

  7. I’ll read some fan fiction but I mostly steer away from it. It tends to be so cheesy and predictable that it sets me on edge. I’m more likely to give a contemporary story (such as Clueless being based on Emma) a whirl over using the same characters and keeping the same setting. An exception that comes to mind is Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, which I found to be quite engaging.

    • Anne says:

      Excellent point! I loved Clueless 🙂 I’ve never read Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. After reading Austenland (horrid!) I’ve stayed far away from P&P fanfiction, but if I cave I’ll keep that one in mind 🙂

  8. Have you read any of Carrie Bebris’ books? She writes the Mr and Mrs Darcy Mysteries. The first one is Pride and Prescience and picks up after Darcy and Elizabeth marry. The series {so far} take place in about a 2 year time frame. It does mix the Darcys with other book characters, but in a really good way {IMO}. Overall, I think Bebris stays pretty true to the characters’ personalities and doesn’t deviate too much {plus, with it being a mystery, it gives it a little something}.

  9. Heatherly says:

    I’m not a fan of the fan fiction, although I do read them from time to time when I need mind candy, but I really enjoy the novels about Jane Austen fans. I enjoyed Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, and Austenland. Enjoyed. I wouldn’t call them literature by any means, but they are great vacation books.

    Glad to now that I can skip Death Comes to Pemberly. Wickham. *shudder* Lydia. *gag*

  10. FishMama says:

    Thanks for the head’s up on Cheryl Mendelsohn. I had no idea she had turned novelist.

    Have you read PD James’ other stuff? I loved the Adam Dalgliesh books. So fun! And creepy, too. I had forgotten all about them.

  11. Lita M. says:

    I highly recommend Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll. A bit on the erotic side of the Darcys’ sex life! How I wish Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen could play the parts in this sequel! Very interesting roles for Wickham and Bingley in this novel. I’m struggling to finish Nights and Days in Pemberley also by Linda Berdoll. The first 100 pages are a sleeper before the story line takes off. Can’t wait to find out the secret about Wickham.

  12. I am reading Death comes to Pemberley right now. I would say that I have to agree with you – the references are too much and I’m having a bit of trouble finishing the book. I decided not to read The Marriage Plot even though I keep seeing in on the best seller list. After reading a summary and several reviews, I decided that it would annoy me.

    I have read way too much fan fiction of the Jane Austen variety. My all time favorite is the Jane Austen Mystery series by Stephanie Barron. She follows the timeline of Jane’s own life and places each story where JAne was living at that time. They are wonderful.

    • Anne says:

      I do appreciate fanfiction that takes the original story in a different direction: it has so much more potential than the continuing saga stuff! Okay, maybe I’ll investigate the Jane Austen mysteries 🙂

  13. nicole says:

    Thanks for the reviews. Death Comes to Pemberley was on my list to read, but maybe I’ll pass. I wasn’t really drawn to The Marriage Plot anyway. Maybe because I didn’t love Middlesex. I felt like that book ended right where I wanted to know more.

  14. I haven’t read any of the Austen-inspired books…but I did see a really cute movie called “Lost in Austen”. This modern day London girl gets transported to the setting of the book Pride &Prejudice. It present an interesting take on some of the characters….and I can’t reveal the rest, because it would spoil it. There was only one scene that was somewhat questionable…but overall a really good film 🙂 Have a great weekend. Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather 🙂

  15. Eos Mom says:

    I’ve actually read several modern day takes on Jane Austen, with mixed results. I hated Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. I liked the Lost Memoirs of JA. I really enjoyed Pride and Prescience and would read more of that series (despite some issues). I also liked Jane Austen in Scarsdale (I think that’s what it was called), a modern take on Persuasion. I’ve tried a few others that I couldn’t get past the first few pages. (You can read some reviews on my blog, here http://swellhowls.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-im-doing-reading-watching.html
    and here http://swellhowls.blogspot.com/2010/08/week-in-review-august-21-2010.html or click the label “books.”)

    • Anne says:

      I’ve never heard of Jane Austen in Scarsdale, thanks for letting me know! (I say I don’t read fanfiction, but I still really like to know what’s out there. That probably makes no sense but there it is.)

      I’m off to read your reviews!

  16. I struggled through the marriage plot a bit too, at times I wanted to put it down and at times I was into it but overall I refused to give up. I had to know what happened. I really Enjoyed Middlesex by Eugenides (although also a slow and methodical read) but I always need to follow his books up with something lighter.

    • Anne says:

      The Marriage Plot was the first Eugenides book I read, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to read more after that one. I keep hearing good things about Middlesex, though–I think I may give it a go.

  17. Jennifer says:

    i am delayed in this response but i just barely discovered your blog and have been devouring past posts…

    I enjoyed a series called “Fitzwilliam Darcy, A Gentleman” which is a trilogy (“An Assembly Such as This,” “Duty and Desire,” and “These Three Remain”). The premise is P&P told from Mr. Darcy’s side. They are engaging and imaginative…bringing in new plots when Darcy is away from Elizabeth but pulling in the familiar and much loved banter straight from the original novel when they are together. i enjoyed the new spin and insight into Darcy’s character.

    They are worth reading, even if they are more light-hearted than inspiring.

Comments are closed.