I have been known to develop the occasional crush on a fictional character. OK, OK, I'll come clean. Frequent. Frequent crushes. My past flames include Heathcliff, Rhett Butler, Alexander Barrington, Edward Cullen, Cole St. Clair, Sid Malone, Mr. Rochester, Gilbert Blythe, and of course, Jamie Fraser.*
But Jane Hayes, heroine of Austenland, develops more than an innocent crush on Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice... she becomes obsessed. Not with the Mr. Darcy of the printed page, but with Mr. Darcy as portrayed by Colin Firth in the BBC production. Jane is a 33-year-old successful career woman, but her love-life can never really get off the ground, due to her many neuroses, one of which, of course, is her delusional attachment to Fitzwilliam Darcy, with his 10,000 a year. (No modern-day man can ever compare!) Jane's great-aunt dies (does everyone in books have a rich great-aunt?) and bequeaths to Jane an all-expenses paid vacation to Pembrook Park, an Austen-inspired Regency-era fantasyland in England, catering to fantasy-deluded women just like Jane. And Jane goes. But is it to have one last hurrah with the Mr. Darcy fantasy in order to put it aside forever?... or does she go with the hopes of meeting--finally--a 21st century Mr. Darcy of her own?
This is possibly the hokiest premise I've ever encountered. It's a reality show in novel form. At Pembrook Park, a huge estate in the English countryside, she is waited on by a team of servants (actors) and is entertained by walks on the grounds and games of whist with handsome young gentlemen (actors). Upon arrival, Jane must forfeit all technological devices and assume the name Miss Erstwhile. Failure to comply by the rules (use of contraband cellphones, being alone with a gentleman!) is grounds for immediate expulsion from the grounds. Some vacation. Jane embroiders in the afternoons, in the evenings she engages in witty banter with Mr. Nobley, and then sneaks out after dark to have normal 21st century conversations with Martin, an estate gardener who drinks root beer and watches Knicks games on his smuggled TV.
Jane and the other paying customers buy (or inherit) a three week sojourn into Regency life, which includes a man tailored just for them, who will woo and flatter with the goal that the women "fall in love." These same ladies then return to the 21st century to their careers--and in some cases, their husbands and children. I don't know whether I should classify this book as a fun read (because it was!) or the stupidest book ever (cause it kinda was that, too). But Jane is endearingly neurotic; her sense-of-humor and self-awareness are all that help keep the story in perspective and prevent it from sinking into total moronity (I made this word up).
I didn't find Pembrook Park to be a whimsical fantasy land. What it felt like to me was something darker; to me it felt like deception, obsession, insincerity and low-grade prostitution. (I just made that term up, too). Does Jane fall for the character assigned to her or the man he is behind the character? Where is the line that separates the two? And again, how is this going to help her get her head on straight and re-rail her love-life? The ending was unconvincing and unbelievable. I can be swept away by books just as much as the next girl. But I ain't cheap: a writer has to sweep me away with a tsunami of convincing plot or a tornado of beautiful language; Hale just gave me the tiniest of puffs of wind at my back.
Grade: 2.5 stars. It was the easy read that I wanted after Tinker, Tailor. But I can't recommend it. I take heart that I borrowed it from the library and didn't pay a cent for it.
*Can you name the books that feature these hunky heroes? I bet The Librarian can pass the test. If she doesn’t know Alexander, that’s because she hasn’t read The Bronze Horseman trilogy which I recommended to her in January. For shame.