“My Dear Mark Twain,” I said, squinting with the effort of remembering. The audience seemed to understand where I was going. My Jane Austen stepped closer, cautiously amused. “If you so much as touch my shinbone, I’ll use it to beat sense into your head. If you don’t like Pride and Prejudice, stop reading it!”
The audience waited for more. My Jane Austen scribbled on her ivories as if she might add her own remarks.
(from My Jane Austen Summer, page 262 in the ARC)
In My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park, Cindy Jones reaches out to those of us who wish to escape our problems by living in a novel, but as the protagonist, Lily Berry, is bound to learn, characters in a novel are fixed in time and on paper and never get a chance to learn from their mistakes. Grieving the death of her mother, Lily just can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that her ex-boyfriend has moved on and that her father’s new girlfriend tossed out the family memories before Lily and her sister could save them. She also is unemployed, having been caught reading Northanger Abbey on the job. The one thing Lily knows for certain is that she finds comfort in the words of Jane Austen and longs to escape into the pages of Austen’s novels.
At the urging of Vera, the owner of the local indie bookstore, Lily sells all of her belongings and leaves Texas for England to the Literature Live festival run by Vera’s husband, Nigel, where professional actors will perform Mansfield Park to a group of Janeites over the course of the summer. Vera assures Lily that she will have a part in the production, and even though she is not an actress, Lily jumps at the chance to live in her favorite novel. But life in England is just as complicated as the life she left behind. Lily must deal with family secrets unearthed by her sister back home and contend with Magda, an overbearing professor in charge of the production who dislikes Lily’s love of Fanny Price (the heroine in Mansfield Park, who is so unlike Austen’s other heroines that academics fight over her in the “Fanny Wars”); Bets, who pushes Lily out of the production even though she likens taking part in the festival to serving time in prison; Willis, an aspiring clergyman who hides in the attic of Newton Priors (the estate where the festival is held) writing a vampire novel; and Omar, the professor who adapts Austen’s novel for the festival and befriends Lily.
As Lily spends the summer planning a tea-theater, crafting a business plan to save the festival, and running around in Regency attire, she befriends her inner Jane Austen, who lurks in her peripheral vision and follows her as she stumbles through new relationships and adventures. Lily’s Jane Austen doesn’t say anything, but fades in and out, writes lists, and gives Lily knowing looks where appropriate. While Lily deals with the problems that caused her to leave Texas and navigates a literary festival where she’s in way over her head, she learns that Jane Austen means something different to each reader but that the world will never truly know her.
My Jane Austen Summer is a novel mostly about a woman trying to emerge from her grief and loneliness to find herself, with fun references to Jane Austen and reading in general. The plot is more complicated than I expected, helped along by the ambitious cast of characters, Lily’s real-life problems, and the drama of the literature festival. I admire Jones for working her love of Jane Austen and Mansfield Park into a contemporary novel, keeping them in the forefront but giving Lily the space to tell her own story. Jones doesn’t go overboard in her comparison of Lily to Fanny Price, it wasn’t forced, making the novel flow more naturally.
Above all, I liked how the novel seemed true to life, as the trip to England does not solve all of Lily’s problems and she’s not healed or transformed overnight. I wasn’t sure I was going to like Lily when the book opened — I questioned her mental state and thought she was kind of creepy with the stalking of the ex-boyfriend — but I ultimately found her endearing. Hey, I can’t blame a girl for wanting to escape in a novel — and not in the I’m-going-to-read-and-let-my-thoughts-drift kind of way. Who wouldn’t want to act out the role of their favorite heroine, and who doesn’t indulge in fantasies at one time or another? My Jane Austen Summer is a great escapist read, with a perfect blend of literary references and soul searching, and you can enjoy it without having read Mansfield Park.
Disclosure: I received My Jane Austen Summer from William Morrow for review.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.