***SPOILER ALERT***:If you've read Sense and Sensibility before, no need for a spoiler warning here. But if not, you might just want to go into this one cold, and just try it. While I have problems with this kind of book, there are certainly worse books of this type around. Skip my review below though!
I am a big fan of Jane Austen. Generally, I am not a fan of sequels or prequels written by someone other than the original author This yea do I go in for fanfiction. I read Longbourn earlier this year (one of my favorite books of the year), and also one of my most highly anticipated reads of the year as well. I had heard about the Harper Collins Austen Project, and when I saw this on Vine, i decided to take a chance. I have never read anything else by Trollope, so I was taking a chance, since I don't think her fiction is in line with my normal reading habits.
I re-read an Austen every year, and coincidentally, Sense and Sensibility was this year's. So the original was fresh in my mind. The reluctance on Trollope's part to deviate from the original story was disconcerting. I read Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy last year, a riff on Jane Eyre, and while the story was most certainly reflective of Jane Eyre, Livesey manages to make it very much her own story, as well as Gemma's. Trollope sticks very closely to Austen's plot and characters, which for me, with the contemporary setting, was a problem for me.
The plot is identical to Austen's: the Dashwood family (mother and three daughters) are forced out of their comfortable home by Isabel's (te Dashwood girls mother) stepson and his wife. Isabel is not only as sensitive as her daughter Marianne, she is a full fledged, perimenopausal hippie, and she and Mr Dashwood were not actually legally married, making matters more precarious for her children. So we do see some more actual character development in her than we do in the original novel. Same situation with Margaret, she is a tad more developed than in the original novel. Marianne and Elinor are practically the same as in the original, which results in Elinor's martyrdom, and Marianne's ninnydom. Because the innocence and sweetness of the Austen characters doesn't carry over, and instead, Elinor seems long suffering and Marianne, with her romantic ideals and artistic sensibilities just translates as annoying and narcissistic, unfortunately.
Trollope uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cell phones, computers and cars liberally to bring her characters into the 21st century. Even Mr. Middleton's business is high tech and world wide. Yet that just seems heavy handed. I would have preferred Trollope had let the girls be old fashioned letter writers: keeping their same personalities and using these devices to "update" them seems forced and dull. This is where the story needs to deviate from the original, especially along the lines of the family's money problems, and the highly important talk of marrying for money. There's a name for people who marry for money, and I believe it translates on both sides of the pond: gold digger. And while these girls are not necessarily gold diggers, all the talk of money and marriage makes me cringe. It is just completely anachronistic. And while it is a major theme in Austen's books, that is because it is a fact of life of her time. Women had to worry about who they'd marry and how much cash they'd have, because women couldn't work. Yet here in the year 2013, women CAN work and do. Two able bodied women cannot work in this story. Granted, Marianne's constitution is delicate, but even that illness (asthma, which also killed their father?) seems anachronistic and bizarre in this day and age, with so many medicines to control these kind of conditions. It just didn't work for me.
This was not the worst thing I've read this year. I think anticipating what was going to happen next (and knowing exactly what that would be), made this book a bit of a slog for me, especially after reading it this summer and enjoying very much: I have two daughters who are close in age, and while they are both serious musicians, I think of them as very much an Elinor and a Marianne (although the older one is our Marianne!). I might be convinced to try another of these rewrites of Austen, but if I was making a suggestion for a friend who loves Austen, I'd tell them to read Longbourn by Jo Baker: the writing is far superior with original characters and plot blending in seamlessly with that of the Bennett family, as well as some re-imaginings of what really goes on behind closed doors there. It was brilliant while this book is just so-so.
For more info on this series of books, all rewrites of Austen books by contemporary writers, click here: The Austen Project