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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Mary Lydon Simonsen to Diary of an Eccentric.  Mary is the author of Searching for Pemberley (my review), a “re-imagining” of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set just after World War II, with heroine Maggie Joyce seeking out the couple who inspired the beloved classic novel.  Mary has taken time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions.

Why did you choose to set Searching for Pemberley in post WWII England?

I was born a few years after the end of World War II, and it seemed that everyone from my parents’ generation had been involved in the war or its aftermath in some capacity. My mom worked for Bendix Radio in Baltimore, which made radios for bombers, and my father was one of Roosevelt’s Whiz Kids. Every one of my uncles served in some branch of the Armed Services, and my father’s sister worked for the State Department in a bombed-out Berlin immediately after the German surrender.

My curiosity about the war led to my interest in the Europe that emerged from the ashes, and so I decided to set my story during that time period. When I started doing my research, I had no idea how long Britain’s post-war austerity program had lasted. My main character, Maggie Joyce, is an American who works for the U.S. government and who has access to the commissary. I thought Maggie’s ability to buy scarce commodities would make for a good contrast with the British, who were still carrying their ration books and queuing up for food in short supply when Maggie arrived in England in 1947.

What inspired you to write about Pride and Prejudice?

I am a romantic, and one of the great romances in literature is that of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. I was captivated by a story where a handsome, rich, highly connected man was so in love with a daughter of a gentleman farmer that he was willing to risk censure and ridicule to be with her. What a great story to build on.

What do you think about the scores of Jane Austen sequels and re-imaginings being published, and what do you think makes Searching for Pemberley stand out?

I do not approve of sequels or re-imaginings written by others. I only approve of my own efforts. Seriously, Jane Austen is still a bestselling author nearly 200 years after her death, the reason being, she wrote wonderful stories that people can relate to even in 2009, and it is a lot of fun working with Austen’s characters.

Searching for Pemberley is different because it poses the question: Were Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice based on the lives of real people? When Maggie arrives in England and learns of that possibility, she travels to Montclair, an estate in Derbyshire, to see if it can be Austen’s Pemberley. By reading through letters and diary entries shared with her by a couple associated with the estate, she comes to know Elizabeth Garrison and William Lacey, the real Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. Searching for Pemberley is actually three love stories in one novel. In addition to Austen’s love story, Maggie has a romance with two men, an American bomber pilot, who saw too much combat, and Michael, a descendant of the Lacey/Darcy line, and she learns of another love story set against the background of World War I. Three stories for the price of one — now that’s a bargain.

Are you working on another book?

Thanks for asking. I have another book coming out in December 2010 with a working title of From Longbourn to Pemberley. This novel parallels the story of Pride and Prejudice, but I wanted to bring some of the minor characters to the forefront. It is Georgiana Darcy and Anne De Bourgh who move the two lovers to their romantic destiny at Pemberley. I’m currently writing a story for a fan fiction site, meryton.com, in which Darcy is a werewolf. This is a major departure for me because I’ve never written anything like it, but it’s been well received because Darcy remains a gentleman faithful to Lizzy. It may become my next novel.

Who is your favorite Austen heroine and why?

Definitely Elizabeth Darcy. I was very shy as a child/teenager. I really didn’t come into my own until my late 20s. Reading about someone like Lizzy, who had such spunk, was wonderful. And she ends up marrying the perfect man. That’s my kind of story.

What five books do you find yourself recommending over and over?

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – Storytelling at its best. It involves all of your senses and emotions and epic events in American history.

Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton — This is the book I give to all my friends when they’re feeling blue or not feeling well. It always cheers them up.

The Edge of the Crazies by Jamie Harrison — A murder mystery set in a Montana town where all the characters are deliciously quirky.

Gorky Park and all the Arkady Renko mysteries by Martin Cruz Smith — Life has not been kind to Arkady, and you just want to give him a hug. The mysteries are well plotted and riveting.

May I mention my own modern novel, The Second Date, Love Italian-American Style? It is a heart-warming, humorous romance set in the Italian-American community of North Jersey. I recommend it to everyone who will stand still long enough for me to get my sales pitch out.

Thank you for having me!

Thank you, Mary!  I wish you much success and look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

Courtesy of Sourcebooks, I have 2 copies of Searching for Pemberley up for grabs. Just leave a comment with your e-mail address. For an extra entry: Tell me your favorite Jane Austen sequel or “re-imagining,” or tell me what you think about all the Jane Austen sequels being published these days. Because the publisher is handling the shipping costs, this giveaway is open to readers in the U.S. and Canada only.  The giveaway will be open until Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Review copy from Sourcebooks
Rating: ★★★★☆

Jane Austen sequels and “re-imaginings” are a guilty pleasure of mine, and I love it when I find one that stands out from the crowd.  Also, I am always seeking out books on World War II.  Put these together, and you have Mary Lydon Simonsen’s Searching for Pemberley.

Simonsen’s heroine is Maggie Joyce, an American stationed in London in 1947 with the Army Exchange Service.  World War II ended just two years prior, and the British are still feeling the pinch of rations, grieving the death of loved ones killed in the battlefield or by the bombs, and doing their best to get by while standing in the midst of destruction.

Neither Rob nor I had ever heard of the Baedeker raids, so I asked Mrs. Ives if they were a part of the Blitz.

“No, the Blitz was in 1940-41,” Mrs. Ives replied.  “According to Lord Haw Haw, the British traitor used by the Nazis for their radio broadcasts, the Baedeker raids were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of German cities.  Using Baedeker’s Guide to Great Britain, cities that received three stars in the tourist guide because of their historical importance were bombed by the Luftwaffe.  Before Canterbury was bombed in June 1942, Exeter, Bath, and York were also bombed.” (page 89 in the ARC)

Maggie travels with a friend to Derbyshire to visit Montclair, a historic house that once belonged to William Lacey and Elizabeth Garrison Lacey, a couple believed to have inspired Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Maggie, a huge fan of the classic novel, wants to know as much as she can about the home and the Laceys to determine whether they truly are Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.  Her search to learn more about the Laceys brings her to the doorstep of Jack and Beth Crowell, and an instant bond is formed.  Jack and Beth grow to love Maggie and think of her as a daughter, and through frequent visits and correspondence, Maggie reads letters and diary entries and slowly uncovers the history of the Lacey and Garrison families.  Readers take the journey alongside Maggie, and those who have read Pride and Prejudice will see similarities between Austen’s beloved characters and Beth’s ancestors.

But would Jane Austen have written a novel that often ridiculed people who could possibly be identified by their neighbors, for example, Mrs. Bennet, with her fragile nerves and poor judgment?

“Do you know when Jane first wrote the novel?” he asked.

“When she was twenty, so that would be about 1795.”

“But it wasn’t published until 1813,” Jack said, jumping in quickly.  “By that time, the Laceys had been married for twenty years!  If anyone was trying to figure out if these characters were real, they would have been looking at people in their twenties in 1813.  Some of the characters in that book were already dead and buried by the time Pride and Prejudice was published.” (page 16 in the ARC)

Meanwhile, Maggie must contend with a longing to return to her hometown in Pennsylvania and her desire at the same time to stay away.  She comes from a coal-mining town with few opportunities, and she’s grown to love the life she’s leading in England.  Besides Jack and Beth, Maggie has feelings for both Rob, an American who served as a navigator on a B-17 bomber during the war and wears the scars to prove it, and Michael, Beth and Jack’s son and a pilot in the RAF.  Things get a little complicated for Maggie, especially when she learns how deeply the horrors of war have affected Rob.

Searching for Pemberley grabbed me from the first page, and I was so lost in the story that I was reading 50-page chunks on the train and bus and almost missing my stop.  Simonsen writes from the first person viewpoint of Maggie, but her use of storytelling is what makes the narrative shine.  Whether the story being told is about the Laceys, the Crowell’s love affair, or the hardships experienced during the Great War and World War II, it feels as though you are sitting by the fire listening to an old friend chat.  Simonsen did a great job crafting the story of the Laceys — making them different enough from the Darcys to keep the story fresh — and seamlessly weaving in Jack and Beth’s story.  I actually was surprised how much the book dealt with the topic of war and its impact, which makes Searching for Pemberley so much more than a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice.  Honestly, the Jane Austen aspect of the story is just one part of the puzzle.

While the nearly 500-page book has numerous scenes and characters that are unnecessary to the plot and could have been cut without being missed, even these scenes were enjoyable, and I never once found that the story dragged.  In fact, for a book of its length, I read it fairly quick.  I wasn’t as captivated with Maggie and her romantic troubles (it was all rather predictable, but not in a bad way) as I was with the story of the Laceys and the Crowells.  Still, I found the entire book interesting, and Simonsen did an admirable job moving between the Regency, Great War, and World War II settings.  I never expected to discover a book that successfully merges two of my primary reading interests into one story, so you can bet this gem of a novel will hold a special place on my shelf.

Disclosure: I received Searching for Pemberley from Sourcebooks for review.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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