by Sally Smith O'Rourke, contemporary (2009)
Kensington, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7582-1038-8
I don't normally read stories that use Jane Austen or Pride And Prejudice as a hook, but the cover of the mass market paperback reissue of The Man Who Loved Jane Austen catches my eye so much so that this book is on its way home with me before I realize what has happened. After reading this story, I have to warn you folks though - the title of this story isn't entirely accurate. But if you really want to know why, you will either have to read this book yourself or drop me a note, heh.
This story explores the possibility that Fitzwilliam Darcy was real. After all, apparently the romance in Pride And Prejudice was so perfect that poor Jane Austen's fans couldn't believe that she made the whole thing up. Don't ask me - I fell asleep while trying to read the first fifty pages of that book, so clearly I do not know perfect love if it bites me in my rear end. In this story, our New York heroine Eliza Knight buys an antique vanity table one day and, while she is messing with it, discovers two letters. One was from a "F Darcy" while the other letter was unopened. F Darcy was writing to "Jane", so oh my, could this be...?
To solve this mystery, Eliza does two things. One, she posts on a Jane Austen fan website asking whether anyone believes that Mr Darcy was real. To my amusement, she gets only one response, from a "FDarcy" from "Pemberley Farms", who claims to share her belief. Eliza dismisses this fellow as a crackpot and concentrates instead her attentions on the Austen scholar Thelma Klein who eventually runs some tests to confirm the authenticity of the letters. Thelma also informs Eliza that another letter from Jane Austen to a Mr Darcy was rumored to have been found recently, but before Thelma can get her hands on it to verify its authenticity, the letter was sold to a private collector. This collector turns out to be the same person that Eliza dismissed as a crackpot.
Intrigued, Eliza now pays this fellow a visit at his Pemberley Farms in Virginia. She finds this Fitzwilliam Darcy to be handsome, naturally, but the thing is, he also claims to be the same man that eventually starred in Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice, the same man Jane was writing to. What is going on here? Is he a crackpot, like Eliza initially suspected, or is he the real deal?
The Man Who Loved Jane Austen is a romance story, but it is shelved and marketed as women's fiction for a good reason: this story is structured in a way that the treatment of romance is more superficial and fluffy than you may expect from a romance novel. While both characters are inoffensive, they are flat and poorly developed. Instead, the author in her Debbie Macomber-style prose focuses on pointing out the tedious preciousness of Eliza's personality, the superficial good looks of Darcy, and the reduction of poor Jane's character into another sexually frustrated bluestocking who would be right at home in an Avon historical romance.
Eliza is precious, annoyingly so - she talks aloud either to her cat or to herself when she is alone, she is oh so beautiful, and everyone loves her - apart from clichéd spoiled blondes who want Darcy for themselves, of course. Poor Darcy is such a stereotype of the dark and romantic fellow whose sole personality resides in his name. He's so depressingly bland. It doesn't help that the author chooses to include secondary characters that talk more like folks in the late 19th century rather than present day types. Perhaps in an attempt to give her story a more politically correct Gone With The Wind vibe, Ms O'Rourke also includes some African American characters who, depressingly enough, are reduced to playing one-dimensional second fiddles and matchmakers to our white hero and heroine. I have to confess that I cringe a little when the author starts describing these characters' skin as "beautiful black skin". There is something very patronizing about that phrase. Do people still use phrases like this nowadays?
As for the romance, I don't buy it. I have this feeling that Eliza doesn't love Darcy as much as she loves the idea of falling in love with Jane Austen's most famous hero. After all, she barely knows him by the end of this book, instead she has built this fantasy of Darcy as the savior of sexually dysfunctional bluestockings everywhere. Up to that point, Ms O'Rourke has piled her story with clichés - the bitchy, blonde, and jealous woman is an obvious example. Meanwhile, there are many unanswered questions. For example, how on earth did Jane Austen's vanity table end up in New York?
The author admits in the foreword that this story is pure fluffy escapism, and I think it is best to treat this book exactly as one. Which is to say, if you aren't as enamored as the author of the idea of Fitzwilliam Darcy being real and saving women everywhere from their mundane lives, you will most likely share the same opinion as me with regards to this book: The Man Who Loved Jane Austen is superficial and underdeveloped "TV Movie of the Week" material. It's not an awful read, but it's also a very forgettable one.
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