Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Longbourn is a must read book for Austen fans!

I have been so excited by two books this year: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (which I am almost done reading), and Longbourn by Jo Baker.  I was so fortunate to be offered an ARC of Longbourn! It was a wonderful, engaging and lovely read.

Ms. Baker's beautiful writing (and much like Kent's Burial Rites) evokes a gorgeous and atmospheric sense of place: : Longbourn,  the family home of the Bennet family is located in the picturesque county of Hertfordshire in the English countryside outside of London.  The story of the servants of Longbourn begins with one of these exquisite passages of Baker's, a word painting really, that describes in lush and fragrant detail, the area around the estate, from the sheep on the hills, to the Bennet daughters asleep in their beds.  Each chapter begins with a line from Pride and Prejudice, giving subtle hints of the time setting.  Baker has taken the lovely old bones of Pride and Prejudice, and re-clothed them with a different skin. And while the time is completely contemporary to P&P, Baker really let's us know the people she portrays in her novel, in a way that is much less guarded than the original.

We are introduced to the hard working house maid, Sarah, who is close in age to the Bennet girls, and almost considers them friends. The family lends her books and gives Sarah their cast off gowns, but of course, she will never be actual friends with these young women, because in the English class system at this time, proper young ladies were not friends with the servants.  I would highly recommend actually reading Pride and Prejudice first, if you have never done so, it really enriches your experience with what Ms. Baker has done here.  Sarah's story, and that of her fellow servants, mirrors that of the Bennet family.  In fact, we see that the servants living at Longbourn are a family of sorts.

Ms. Baker is able to address issues that Miss Austen couldn't even dream of discussing this directly in her own novels, although they were definitely issues that were spoken of privately and secretly at the time. The use of slaves and the abolitionist movement among the county's families, illegitimate children, homosexuality, and even addiction is spoken of throughout this novel.  Ptolemy Bingley is a favorite servant of the senior Mr. Bingley from their West Indies sugar cane plantation, and one can't help but wonder if he IS a Bingley, and not just in name.  Sarah has never met a black man before, but she is both impressed with his physical beauty as well as his regal bearing and charming personality.  Sarah is young (about 15) and is learning about men and women and the attractions between them, via the Bennet girls romantic antics and courtships, as well as the young men she meets herself:: Ptolemy, Mr. Wickham, Mr. Darcy, and James Smith, the latest servant addition to the Bennet's household.  Jame Smith is introduced as a shadowy, mysterious figure, but not a menacing one, a welcome one. And Sarah, sensitive, intelligent and curious, is intrigued.

I absolutely loved this novel. I am a big Jane Austen fan, but not one to read the many "sequels" and take offs inspired by her works.  In fact, I did read Austenland (Shannon Hale) when it came out five or so years ago., but was sort of bored with it. I want to escape too, but that as a plot does not interest me. Nor do books like Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (Linda Berdoll), which are merely new takes on the same characters in the books: I understand that they are beloved by many, and we want to know what happens after the last page, but this kind of fan fiction does not keep my interest:  I only want to "hear" Miss Austen's voice, and that cannot be duplicated. But what Ms. Baker does here is so very different, in her imagining a completely new cast of characters, not just cut out servants standing in the background waiting to interact, with no real hearts of their own. Ms. Baker gives each and every one a story, a past, hopes, joys and problems, of course; fleshing them out in a realistic and relate-able manner.  This is the kind of novel that causes me to read aloud to my completely disinterested husband, and he listens, because whether or not he can relate or appreciate what I'm reading, he can see that I am in love with the prose and the story.

This book made me cry--and that's a good thing. It was a very moving story, and I couldn't wait to pick the book up again after a break from it. This one will definitely be on my list of favorite for now on. And I will definitely be reading more Jo Baker in the future! What a happy discovery!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman

I went into reading this book feeling excited, because there has been some talk about this book. I saw it chosen as some online magazines "book group" pick, but have since forgotten which one it actually was, even though that is truly what prompted me to pick up this novel. That and comparisons between Waldman and Jane Austen. Well, I guess I'm here to say Ms.Waldman has a long way to go, although it wasn't a bad start, either.

Nathaniel is a writer, living in Brooklyn. He's been struggling for years, but works hard. His parents, Romanian Jewish immigrants, worked hard to give him an American life, and he pretty much seems to have realized that dream: he attended Harvard, pursued a writing career, and eventually, moved to New York City and sold his first book. Glowing in that recent success, Nate starts to wonder: why doesn't he have a girlfriend? What went wrong with the old girlfriends? We soon get a lot of insight into why things might not have worked out with his previous girlfriends, as well as the one he meets in the course of the book.

I will totally admit to having a preconceived notion of what this book was going to be like, and fully admit to being wrong.  I did not have any clue it was going to be a discourse on why no woman would never be good enough for Nate's friends. Yes, his friends. Because even though Nate is fairly attractive in his own right, who you hang out(in Brooklyn!)with is nearly of equal or possibly greater importance as far as how attractive you might be to the opposite sex.  Nate's friends might leave a bit to be desired, but with this novel, everyone is a sort of caricature of themselves, so the fact that we meet a very one dimensional Jason, who eventually does show a more sensitive side, is relatively unimportant. The truth is, for Nate, it is all how the current woman looks on his arm, and to his friends. With Nate, appearances, at least at the start of the novel, are everything.

I enjoyed reading this book, although at times, I felt frustrated. Waldman tries a little too much to "think like a man."  Nate does have some pretty bad habits in his thinking and his behavior, and you root for him, but wish that maybe, he could change just a little, and learn from his mistakes.

Definitely an interesting debut for Adelle Waldman.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review of Nancy Horan's Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Fanny Van De Grift and Robert Louis Stevenson)

My review is based on a Netgalley electronic ARC.

This is a fictionalized imagining of what the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife and soul mate, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Their lives together are well documented, and they both wrote extensively--obviously, RLS wrote all the time, and as many people of the time were often separated by distance and oceans, and often for life, they were both enthusiastic letter writers. Fanny also wrote some fiction, and she kept extensive diaries and journals, for her own personal reasons, as well as for Stevenson to refer to. 

Fanny meets Stevenson in the French countryside at a sort of summer artist's colony when she fled the US in an attempt to leave her philandering husband with her children to try to pursue a better life. RLS was instantly attracted to Fanny and her verve for life. Having been sickly all his life (tuberculosis), he was entranced by her strength and outgoing ways, especially for a woman of the time period.

This book documents their relationship and life together from day 1. While they loved being together, theirs was not a marriage without its troubles. Both struggled with periods of depression and artistic frustration. Fanny gave up a lot of the things she wanted to do to accompany RLS to various spa like sanatoriums in Europe and the US and Canada. When he was well enough to write, he did nothing but. Fanny managed the household, dealt with his menagerie of crazy friends, and put aside her own artistic pursuits to help him achieve success. 

The writing in this novel was lovely. Horan does not shy away from the tough issues that clouded the times and the life of the people we meet in this novel. From France and Belgium, to the US and finally to the South Seas, where he settled with his family on the Samoan island of Upolu. There was nice balance between the two main characters; I felt like I got to know both Fanny and RLS quite well. I think this book will be well received.