Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vacation Reading: Book Three, Another Kind Of Fantasy

While I've done my fair share of reading of Jane Austen, favoring Pride and Prejudice like so many other readers, I can't say I get the love for Mr. Darcy that I'm always hearing about. Sure, I enjoy the I hate you, I hate you, I love you relationship between the P&P male and female leads, a formula that Austen may have created. But, seriously, Darcy doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun to live with to me, I don't care how many wet shirt scenes actors do while playing him. (Did anyone else think Pandering to the audience while watching that? Did anyone else think about how exploitative that scene--which does not appear in the book--would have been if it had involved a woman instead of a man? Nah, I guess not.)

I'm not all that interested in the romances Jane Austen wrote about. They're sort of beside the point to me. I'm interested in her. I like the sharpness of her observations, and the world she creates in her books. I like the way she makes me feel that there have always been women who stepped to another drummer.

All this build-up is to explain why I felt some reservations about sitting down to read Austenland by Shannon Hale, as my third vacation book. I've liked some of Hale's work, but other things I found "girly". Fairy-tale-like fantasies seem to be her turf, and though she often gave them a bit of a feminist, "girl-power" spin, they still seemed very "girly" for my taste.

But my attitude toward her work changed after reading Austenland, her adult novel about thirty-something Jane, a Pride and Prejudice junky who can't find happiness in love because of her obsession with Mr. Darcy. Now I see Hale as someone who is, indeed, attracted to what might be called fairy tale fantasies but who also looks at them and goes, "Oh, come on!"

For instance, Jane in Austenland inherits a week at what might be described as a very high class Jane Austen theme park--Austenland. Well-heeled women with Austen fantasies dress up in early nineteenth century fashions and live with Austen re-enactors, a number of whom are handsome men who develop Austen-like romantic relationships with the often middle aged clientele.

But unless this feminist of a certain age was reading too much into this tale, Hale doesn't just lay out a light-hearted romantic comedy here. She also raises the question of whether or not fictional romances have left many women readers disappointed in real men. (I know--there's a joke in here somewhere about real men actually being disappointing.) Her main character certainly comes to recognize the flaws in a real-life Mr. Darcy. Hale also points out how mind numbing life must have been for upper class women in Austen's world. All the early nineteenth century stock romantic novel characters end up disappointing. In fact, the guy who is playing Mr. Darcy only becomes interesting when he's not playing him, anymore.

I found the weakest part of this book to be the main character, Jane. She seemed wishy washy, always changing her mind about what she hoped to get from her Austenland experience, and never being very clear about any of her thinking. But she didn't matter to me, anyway. What I liked about Austenland was the sharpness of the observations and the world within the world. It was an interesting book from someone I now consider to be an interesting writer.


Kate said...

This post leaves me wondering what your opinion might be of Rapunzel's Revenge, which Hale co-authored with her husband -- yet another kind of fantasy.

Gail Gauthier said...

I read that within a week of reading Austenland, but I'm not supposed to blog about it now because it's a finalist for the graphic novel Cybil and I'm one of the judges. I'll be talking about it in February--as well as my feelings about not being able to discuss the finalists.

But it's interesting that you should connect these two books because, having read them so close together, I do see a bit of a connection.

Kate said...

I eagerly await that post!