Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Review: Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
Midnight in Austenland
By: Shannon Hale
About the book:
When Charlotte Kinder decides to treat herself to a vacation, she happily leaves behind all the complications of life in America and heads to Austenland. The country manor Pembrook Park offers an immersive Jane Austen experience, complete with gentleman actors to provide just a suggestion of romance.
Everyone at Pembrook Park is playing a role, but increasingly, Charlotte can't be sure where roles end and reality begins. And as the parlor games turn a little bit menacing, she finds she needs more than a good corset to keep herself safe. Is the brooding Mr. Mallery as sinister as he seems? What is Miss Gardenside's mysterious ailment? Coult that have been a real dead body in the attic? And could the stirrings in Charlotte's heart be a sign of real-life love?
In this follow-up to reader favorite Austenland, Shannon Hale gives us a fiesty new heroine, fresh and frightening plot twists, and the possibility of romance that might just go beyond the bounds of Austen fantasy. It's always a pleasure to visit Austenland.
Charlotte wasn't born to be a heroine. She was a nice child who grew into a nice woman who married a nice man and had two nice kids -- in other words, she was the proud possessor of a nice, safe life. That safety net, the surety of what has always been, is traded for the fear of the unknown when her nice husband drops a bombshell -- he's in love with another and wants a divorce. Cast adrift in the sea of newly-acquired singleness, Charlotte is bereft of all anchors, uncertain of the future and most importantly, of who she is stripped of the identity marriage provided. In the throes of emotional numbness Charlotte discovers the works of Jane Austen, and a most unorthodox, unconventional idea takes root -- she'll vacation in Austenland. Living in Regency England for two weeks, free to assume a new identity, Charlotte can perhaps rediscover the heartbeat of her life, her sense of self and worth. But her desire for a simple vacation turns into much more when Charlotte arrives and discovers the manor house and its inhabitants hide their own share of secrets beneath the veneer of 19th-century respectability. With death stalking Pembrook Park's stately doors, Charlotte must untangle the blurry threads of reality vs. fantasy before she becomes a victim, and along the way just might discover that while the life she knew has ended, the life she didn't dare dream of is waiting in the wings -- if she can find the courage to cross the threshold into the unknown.
Austenland, Hale's first tribute to Janeites, is one of my favorite Austen pastiches, a delightful, frothy confection of a novel. It speaks to the secret wish I'm convinced most Austen fans, if they're honest with themselves, has entertained or exclaimed when revisiting a novel or watching one of the many film adaptations -- the desire to to live our very own Austenesque romance. Austenland is the perfect wish-fulfillment vehicle, a loving send-up created by an Austen fan as a gift to her peers, peppered with inside jokes, references, and character types that fans of the books and films are sure to appreciate. Austenland's only drawback was that it was too short -- and time has proven that Hale's first foray into the realms of Austen-flavored chick-lit was merely a dry run for her return to the delightful conceit that is Austenland. Midnight in Austenland takes everything that worked about its predecessor -- the charm, the humor, a dash of romance -- and builds on it, delivering a more substantial, well-developed, and funnier homage to Jane Austen and her inimitable fans.
Taking most of her cues from Northanger Abbey, Hale's return to the halls of Austenland is shaded with darker tones, the suggestion of menace, the hint of danger in keeping with the storyline's Gothic inspiration. Coupled with Charlotte's hilarious dialogue with her Inner Thoughts, I have to think that Hale has crafted a story and a heroine, both of which Catherine Morland would heartily approve. I loved how Hale interspersed the narrative with brief scenes from Charlotte's past, giving welcome insight into the circumstances that made her the woman she is today, and underscoring the critical importance of what she hopes to achieve at Austenland. Hale isn't just about escaping reality either; rather, through her unconventional foray into Regency England Charlotte transforms herself, recognizing and embracing her unique strengths and characteristics and in doing so becomes her best self.
The romance Charlotte discovers at Austenland is to DIE for. Without revealing too much, Charlotte's Mr. Tilney, if you will, is positively swoon-worthy. :) The sweet romance Hale is known for penning is spiced with a period-flavored sizzle that any fan of Austen's films is sure to appreciate. With greater character development (particularly welcome as regards some of the Austenland cast members and fellow vacationers!) and a healthy dose of mystery and peril, Midnight in Austenland is a winner. I desperately hope that Hale will one day favor readers with third return to Austenland's halls -- this brand of escapism never gets old.