Austenland by Shannon Hale

  • Title: AustenlandAustenland by Shannon Hale
  • Author: Shannon Hale
  • Series: Book 1 in the Austenland series
  • Genre(s): Contemporary Fiction (or, god help us, Chick Lit)
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury, May 2007
  • Purchase: Amazon, $1.99 Kindle Daily Deal (regular $7.01)
  • Tropes: Austen, TSTL
  • Quick blurb: Single New Yorker takes on a Regency fantasy camp deep in the heart of England.
  • Quick snark: A complete lack of subtlety – on a Looney Tunes anvil-dropping scale.
  • Grade: D+

My daughter and I loved Hale’s Princess Academy, so I was really looking forward to seeing what a Newbery honoree could do with some grown-up Austen fluff:

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Unfortunately, it was a weird combination of too much and not enough – this Regency fantasy camp was more like a middle school cafeteria.

I debated this grade for a while, but ultimately had to go with with a D+. While it wasn’t truly painful, it was really disappointing and I can’t think of anyone I’d recommend it to.

The + on the D+ is for the cute cover.

Our “heroine”

First, let’s review a Rule of Modern Society that underlies the plot:

Single Woman + Jane Austen Books = Object of Pity

If you are a single woman who enjoys reading Austen, you MUST be wallowing in “woe is me, I have no man” misery. Happy women have men and no time to read.

Now we can meet our heroine – Jane is in her early 30s, attractive and professionally successful. But she’s single, so therefore she’s miserable and addicted to Austen novels. Let’s all pity Jane <moment of silence>.

No matter how much I wanted to like this Jane, I could never care enough to root for her. She seemed so shallow and spineless, whining internally and allowing herself to be manipulated by others – and if the heroine doesn’t care enough to fight for her own happiness, why should I?

There were also a few scenes where Jane teetered on the edge of being TSTL (Too Stupid To Live), ignoring or not even noticing what was right in front of her eyes. The author managed to keep Jane a functional human being, but it was a close call a few times – and those moments made me lose respect for the character. I want my heroines smart, funny and insightful, not blindly stumbling through various plot points just to get to the Happily Ever After.

I wanted JUST ONCE for Jane to step out of character and kick some ass – literally or metaphorically, it wouldn’t matter. Either way would have made her much more interesting.

Our hero…

Not gonna bother because

(a) it’s pretty obvious which fantasy camp character it is;

(b) the heroine was too blind and/or stupid to notice him;, and

(c) he had no personality and no real impact on the plot.

In other words, he wasn’t much of a hero.

Too much… “are they or aren’t they?” angst

No, not THAT kind of “are they or aren’t they?” Get your mind out of the gutter.

The plot of Austenland hinges on Jane immersing herself in the “game” and losing perspective on who was playing a character and who wasn’t. By about halfway through, it was pretty apparent who was “real” and who wasn’t, and I felt kind of insulted by the pseudo-suspense.

Even worse, I just didn’t care.

Too much… literary name-dropping

Even worse than the boring and borderline TSTL heroine was the unnecessary and often irrelevant jack-hammering of nearly every Austen hero and heroine into the plot-within-a-plot.

For extra impressiveness, Hale also threw in Sterne, Radcliffe, two (count ’em, two!) Brontes and even Hawthorne. The literary name-dropping was about as subtle as a brick.

There was also a Bridget Jones’s Diary “manly dueling without weapons” at the end. Ugh. Unless you can guarantee me Colin Firth and Hugh Grant duking it out in the movie version, don’t bother.

Too much… “Well, DUH, he’s RIGHT THERE, dumbass!”

The most irritating “WAY too much” was the unrelenting insistence on making the Pride and Prejudice-obsessed heroine completely oblivious to the Mr. Darcy breathing down her neck.

I think anyone who has read the book or seen the movie more than once will feel the same urge I did to smack the heroine upside the head in disgust. I had the same reaction to the first hour of “Lost in Austen,” but that finally won me over because that heroine cared more for others than for herself. After five or six chapters of this heroine’s ansgty internal whining, I came very close to giving up.

Not enough… subtlety

The “not enough” – and the major source of disappointment – was the complete lack of subtlety throughout the entire book.

Every chapter had at least one hit-you-over-the-head HEY THIS IS ONE OF THOSE AUSTEN REFERENCE PLOT DEVICES WINK WINK with zilch for charm or imagination. Think Looney Tunes anvil-dropping subtlety.

The author tried very, very hard to prove her Austen-worthiness, and that “take me seriously” earnestness was very, very obvious.

Not enough… villainy

The only exception to the woeful lack of subtlety might have been an unintended allusion: Mrs. Wattlesbrook = Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park.

The Austenland fantasy camp needed more of her as the hovering villain undermining the heroine with digs about propriety and “Ideal Guests.”

Now let me tell you what I REALLY think…

Unfortunately, Austenland is an example of a wonderful author doing a complete 180 and getting the “show, don’t tell” thing really, really wrong. Skip this and read Princess Academy and watch Lost in Austen. Trust me.

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