Series: Austenland #1
Summary: After a dozen failed relationships, Jane Hayes has given up on men and accepted that none of them can live up to the expectations she has gained from watching Colin Firth play Mr. Darcy. She believes that a vacation at the exclusive, and somewhat mysterious, Austenland will be her one last fling with romance before she packs away all her dreams. There women can enter a world where they live like Jane Austen’s heroines, down to their Regency dresses and their flirtations with eligible young men. At first Jane has trouble entering the play; she is all too keenly aware of how awkward it is to have a fake romance with an actor. However, as time passes, she begins to wonder if some of the romance might be real.
Review: Looking at Austenland, one cannot help but wonder why no one thought of this concept before Shannon Hale. It combines Austenmania—and the well-known obsession of women with Colin Firth—with a sympathetic protagonist whose despair at finding love mirrors that of countless readers. Jane Hayes thus serves as a sort of screen onto which women can project themselves and their fantasies. Through her, they live the life of a Jane Austen heroine. They find themselves clever, witty, pretty, and engaging—in short, desirable. They can associate with handsome men dressed in breeches and cravats and do nothing all day but read or paint. Jane is in some respects better than Elizabeth Bennet, however, because she allows women to bring the fantasy back into their own world—thus strengthening it. She is a single, career-minded girl living in NYC who ultimately proves that Mr. Darcys still exist. The only problem is that this ultimate message seems to contradict the theme of the story.
At the beginning of the book, Jane seems to admit that her longings for Mr. Darcy have ruined her real-life relationships. Readers find out later that most of her boyfriends actually deserved to go based on their own infantile/disrespectful/downright scandalous behavior. However, Jane’s thoughts suggest that she might not be happy even if she found a nice, upright man who respected her. Thanks to countless hours spent watching Colin Firth, she wants a man who wears top hats and says romantic things with a British accent. Readers simply cannot know that she would accept anything else. She, at least, seems to think she will not. Readers now have the dilemma of a chick lit announcing that reading too much chick lit (or watching too many chick flicks) can prove unhealthy.
Of course, readers know that the genre demands Jane will end up with a man. The question is not whether Jane will find love, but how Hale will make her do it in a way that defies the norms of chick lit and makes this one somehow superior to the rest. Hale does not pull it off. Jane falls in love exactly the way anyone would have predicted. She finds a nice Mr. Darcy-esque guy in the most improbable of places, they hit it off quickly, some obstacles occur, they end up happily together. But wasn’t the moral of the story that women should not expect Mr. Darcy’s to fall into their laps?
The book, of course, never implied that good men do not exist or that women will never find them. It did, however, suggest that women should not live in their daydreams. Yet the book is exactly the type of thing it condemned for leading women into these daydreams. It is perhaps even more successful than most due to the inspired combination of Austen with the modern-day world.
The story is fun, the characters are likeable, and the mystery of Austenland is intriguing. The book has wide appeal for those who like Austen, romance, or chick lit. However, the attempt to warn against chick lit strikes a jarring note throughout the book and ultimately just proves baffling.
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