The American Heiress, Daisy Goodwin

America’s wealthiest heiress, Cora Cash, is on the hunt for a titled husband in England. Though it seems not much will get in the way of her wealth, beauty or indomitable mother, the transition to English culture is not as easy as they thought.

A tempting cover and comparisons to Downton Abbey originally drew me to The American Heiress, a story set in the Gilded Age (late 1860’s-1896). It was an interesting era I had never read about before; when the United States had huge economic booms which resulted in some enormously rich people known for their ostentatious display of wealth. In England the restrictions of the Victorian Age were just beginning to loosen which served well for wealthy American girls searching for a titled man across the pond.

Cora was captivating, rising above the two-dimensional heroines all too common in historical fictions. She desires to be free of the restraints of a domineering mother, and sees marriage as her key to this future. While spoiled and reveling in her popularity, we still see the young lady underneath who wants nothing but to live her life to the fullest.  But while she was an intriguing character, she fell short of the strong-female role author Daisy Goodwin intended her for.

Though this book was, of course, not on the same level as a Jane Austen, Goodwin was genuinely able to capture the time period and strict English customs in her debut novel. While Cora is the novel’s central character, Goodwin also explores some other POV’s which bring some added depth to the story. But despite Goodwin’s skill, the book had a poorly drawn plot that while somehow keeping your rapt attention, was continually disappointing. Though the characters were intriguing, their relationships were confusing, and the story seemed to drive towards an intense climax that was instead rather odd and stinted.

Cora’s love interest, the Duke, is a sort of perplexing character you never seem to get a hold of- which is where the book really fails. And it is such a shame because despite all the pitfalls, this book had so much potential. Goodwin had some lovely touches in this novel, but despite falling short of its mark, I’m still glad I wasn’t dragged through a thoughtless bodice-ripper.

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Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

While I can’t speak for Kaite, maybe the reason we’ve been bad about keeping our posts regular is books like this. While it is by no means a difficult read, at 850 pages Outlander can’t be considered a “light” read. Alas, I did finish it! And not just that – it kept my rapt attention the whole time.

The Outlander series

Claire Randall is happily married and enjoying her second honeymoon in Scotland, when she accidently “falls through” a stone at Craigh na Dun (imagine a mini Stonehenge). Suddenly she finds herself in year 1743, more than 200 years in the past. Before she realizes what’s happened, she is taken from the stone formation, her one way of getting back. Thus, Claire is forced to take up life as an honourary (though suspect) member of the MacKenzie clan. Living in the bustling Castle Leoch, she uses her 20th-century nursing knowledge to become a physician in the dark ages of medicine. And who should keep getting hurt and needing her assistance other than the wreckelss Jamie Fraser? With his glistening brow, stiff upper lip and general gorgeousness, he clearly fits the compulsory criteria for Swoon-Worthy Male LeadContinue reading

The Virgin Blue, Tracy Chevalier

Plume, 2003

I know I’ve already mentioned how much I adore Chevalier’s books, so I’ll try to keep this one short!

Her first book, The Virgin Blue features two stories in parallel. One centres around a 16th-century French woman, Isabelle du Moulin, who clings to her Catholic faith even though all those around her, including those in her own family, have converted to Protestantism. Her husband is cruel and psychologically manipulative from the start, and her story is one heavily shrouded in superstition and suspicion. Then there is Ella Turner, a modern-day American woman who moves to Lisle-sur-Tarn, a small town in southernwestern France, with her husband. Ella struggles to find her identity in France, a big part of which involves digging into her family’s extensive history there. The result is an interesting connection between the two women who lived centuries apart.

That’s the bare bones of it, and I must say I enjoyed the general story. It was obvious to me, however, that Chevalier was still green at the time of her writing this book. There were several themes which she stuck to faithfully throughout the story – marriage, happiness, religion and spiritual tradition, dreams and superstition – these are all things both women battle throughout. But then there were things thatseemedshould be important, but weren’t – Ella’s interest in bringing her midwifery to France, for example, really doesn’t play out in the story, a detail the author seems to have forgotten about half way through. There were also several minor characters who didn’t have to be there. On top of it all, the ending was plain confusing. Tension started building near the end of the story, and it was paced so beautifully (a skill Chevalier has only improved upon since). But then it all seemed to end in two pages! Bam! – there’s the ending. Deal with it. It left me jilted, and I had to remind myself that the book in its entirety really was better than the feeling it ultimately left me with.

I stand by my claims that Chevalier is one of those rare, naturally-gifted writers. This may not have been her best attempt, but for a first novel it’s fine. Everyone needs a moment to find their footing, and this was that. It only gets better from here.

Austenfest Week 6: Persuasion

Penguin Classics, 2006

I was quite surprised by Austen’s last full-length novel. My expectations were low, mostly I think because I had just finished Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey where the heroines could definitely have used a bit more spunk.  Anne Elliot, around whom this book revolves, is by no means on par with Emma or Elizabeth, but I admired her all the same. I knew before I started that Anne is persuaded not to marry the man she loves, so I spent the first half of the novel dreading what was to come before I realized that the persuasion had actually occurred eight years previous! Nineteen-year-old Anne had fallen in love with Frederick Wentworth, whom her family disapproved of as he lacked both pedigree and wealth. With their encouragement, she called off their engagement to the heartbreak of both. Since then Wentworth has become a captain in the navy, accumulated a fortune and is soon to be reunited with Anne. Continue reading

Austenfest Week 5: Northanger Abbey

In this story we follow Catherine Morland who is fortunate to be invited by wealthy neighbors, the Allens, to visit Bath for a few weeks. Of a modest estate with nine other siblings, this is a great opportunity for the seventeen-year-old, who

Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005

dreams of the stories her Gothic novels tell, to come out and enjoy a more exciting lifestyle. We soon see that Catherine is  an innocent and naïve character, inclined to always think the best of others. Desperate to make acquaintances in Bath, both her and Mrs. Allen frequent the pump room, meeting Henry Tilney, a clever and sarcastic soon-to-be clergyman, and the Thorpes. Mrs. Allen and her young friend spend much of their time with the Thorpes, and their eldest daughter, Isabella, and Catherine get along very well. It is discovered that James, Catherine’s older brother, is a friend of the Thorpes, and soon attends Bath as their guest.  Isabella and James are clearly attracted to each other, and Catherine must fend off Isabella’s older brother, John Thorpe, an arrogant, crude man who thinks very well of himself. Desperate to meet Mr. Tilney again, Catherine is delighted to see him at a ball along with his sister Eleanor, and soon becomes better acquainted with the pair.  In her last few weeks in Bath Catherine finds herself in a difficult situation when Isabella, James and Mr. Thorpe whisk her away on adventures against her wishes, when she had previous engagements with the Tilneys. Appalled at, though inclined to excuse their behavior, Catherine apologizes to the forgiving Tilneys, and is soon invited to spend a few weeks at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine is delighted to spend more time with Mr. Tilney, his gentle sister Eleanor, and their father, General Tilney, a curious creature who is very kind to her. James and Isabella soon become engaged, but when her brother is out of town, Catherine is shocked at Isabella’s behaviour when she flirts with a new visitor to Bath, the eldest Tilney brother, who is very unlike Henry. Isabella is quick with excuses and professes her undying love for the Morland siblings, and our heroine is soon on her way to Northanger Abbey. Continue reading

Austenfest Week 4: Emma

Penguin Group USA, 2011

Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy, pretty, twenty-year-old woman with little excitement in her life at Highbury. We first meet her at the wedding of her governess to a close neighbor, Mr. Weston, along with other central characters such as Mr. Woodhouse, her doting and often-ill father, and Mr. Knightley who lives in nearby Donwell Abbey and is the brother of her sister’s husband. Though sad to be losing her beloved governess, Emma rejoices that it was a match of her very own making, having encouraged the two to become close.  Seeing her success at matchmaking, Emma quickly picks it up as a hobby and searches for her next benefactor.  Enter Harriet Smith, a young lady from the local boarding school with unknown ancestry, who is quickly befriended by Emma and guided towards Mr. Elton, the vicar, who seems to reciprocate the attentions of the ladies. Emma quickly urges Harriet to deny a marriage proposal from a respectable farmer, Mr. Martin, and under her guidance becomes obsessed with Mr. Elton, who we soon learn has his sights set on Emma. Shocked by this, Emma quickly refuses him, Harriet is heartbroken, and an angry Mr. Elton goes to bath, only to return with a Mrs. Elton: a loud, rude woman Emma immediately dislikes.

A dance scene with Emma and Mr. Knightley, from the film.

Highbury society becomes even more exciting with the arrival of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill who help our characters form complex romances and intriguing social outings. Emma’s dull life seems a thing of the past as she navigates a complex society of friends and foes with Harriet at her side. Austen is no slouch at entertaining her reader with peculiar characters and complex relationships, and Emma is an example of such. The whole novel takes place in one town with very little action, and yet the subtle and amusing narration of Highbury society is compelling. Though Emma is one of my favorites, it varies not only from Austen’s other novels, but from all novels I have read in that a climax barely exists. The story is wonderful and the ending is one definitely worth waiting for, but its construction seems strange. Perhaps this is the beauty of Austen though- she doesn’t build her novels for us 21st century readers who are used to twists and turns at every corner, but for those of the 19th century who expected very different things from their books. Some readers dislike this lack of action and I can’t deny that I wish some parts to be more developed, but I’ve grown used to Austen’s quick conclusions, and must rely on my imagination to illustrate the happy endings. (And boy, when she feels like it, Austen sure knows how to do romance.)

It is interesting to me that Austen intended to create in Emma a character everyone would dislike. Despite her spoilt behavior, I can’t help but like Emma, especially to some of Austen’s other goody-two-shoes heroines. Also unique is that in Emma we find Austen’s only lead character that is not dependent on marriage.  Financially secure, Emma has no intentions of ever marrying, and her only disadvantage is a dull life she can do little to change. Jane Austen again creates some wonderful characters, from the silly Bates, to the haughty Eltons, which make Emma’s life much less dull for us.

Austenfest Week Three: Mansfield Park

A Penguin Classics cover of Mansfield Park

Our Austen heroine in this novel is of quite a different character than those we have known as of yet. With an exceedingly virtuous nature, Fanny Price lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, along with her older cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia. From a much poorer family with many children, this presents a great opportunity for her education and manners and though an extremely shy child, she grows into a woman who excels at both. Along with neighboring aunt, Mrs. Norris, a skinflint who dislikes Fanny, the family often overlooks her, treating her as inferior to her cousins. The only one to ever show her much kindness was Edmund, and Fanny’s long admiration of his thoughtfulness grows into a love she hides for many years.

After this brief history, we forward to when Fanny is around eighteen-years-old. Sir Thomas has left to visit his business interests in the Caribbean, and the Bertrams have slowly become much less guarded in their behavior in his absence. Though Edmund remains the kind person he has always been, Tom is prone to gambling, Maria and Julia are shameless flirts (even though the former is engaged), and Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram either ignore or encourage these behaviors. The situation continues with the arrival of Henry Crawford and his sister Mary in the village, who quickly entwine themselves with the Bertrams, leading to many romantic entanglements. Fanny is often overlooked in their escapades, and is dismayed to see not only some appalling behavior from Mr. Crawford, Maria and Julia, but the growing attachment of her beloved Edmund to Miss Crawford, a lady who, though kind to Fanny and very pretty, has many faults Edmund seems to overlook. But, the plot thickens and Austen throws in many twists and turns that end up with ruination for some and happiness for others. With a conclusion containing elopement, adultery, marriage, divorce and banishment, Austen surprises her readers again with an ending you won’t soon forget!

Watercolour Illustration by C.E. Brock

As an Austen addict it is hard not to enjoy the author’s narrative, plot and characters. But despite having these classic Austen attributes, Mansfield Park is unlikely to become one of your favorites. Fanny Price is too keen on good manners, and not many find her approval. Without Lizzie’s spunk, Marianne’s passion, Emma’s lightheartedness or even Catherine’s imagination, Fanny is left to her dull self; a character who might have been more admired in the 1800’s, perhaps. Though it may be hard to follow up Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park has only a fraction of it’s romance and intrigue. It does however contain some wonderful characters in the form of Mrs. Norris and the Crawfords, but unfortunately they are not the focus of the story. It is a good read, but I would only recommend it for those who, like me, need all the Austen they can get.

Austenfest Week Two: Pride and Prejudice

Spoilers: Though I will never give away an ending, many key aspects of this book are relayed here.  Please don’t continue if you would rather discover them for yourself!

Mrs. Bennet and her daughters in Universal's 2005 adaptation

Probably Austen’s most beloved story, P&P follows protagonist Lizzy Bennet for roughly a year of her life. With a kind father, three silly younger sisters and an absurd though loving mother, Lizzy and her older sister Jane attempt to acquaint themselves with the Bingleys, a rich family that has just moved into a neighboring estate, without too much embarrassment. Jane and Charles Bingley are quickly drawn together, while Mr. Darcy, Bingley’s friend, spurns Lizzy with his haughty ways. Officers arrive in the nearby town of Meryton, and the two youngest sisters, Lydia and Kitty, along with their mother are beside themselves with glee.  We are introduced to the handsome and charming Major Wickham who grew up with Mr. Darcy, and quickly tells Lizzy of the unforgivable things Darcy has done to him. Lizzy finds herself enjoying his company, though this is eclipsed with the arrival of Mr. Collins, their cousin and heir to the estate. Mr. Collins, a  clergyman to the indomitable and rich Lady Catherine de Bourg, proves to be a ridiculous and  fatuous character, who quickly sets his sights on the mortified Lizzy as his future bride. After a hilarious and unsuccessful proposal to Lizzy, Mr. Collins weds her good friend Charlotte, to the surprise of many.

 Meanwhile, the Bingleys leave and seem to sever contact with a heartbroken Jane. Lizzy soon visits Mr. and Mrs. Collins in Kent, and who should show up there but Mr. Darcy, as Lady Catherine’s nephew!  Lizzy holds in her ire, as she knows the truth of Darcy, and is surprised when after a few weeks he proposes to her despite his prejudices! 

Penguin UK, 2006

And this is only halfway, people! The plot thickens; fifteen-year-old Lydia runs off with an immoral man, the Bingleys  come back, and Lizzy undergoes a change of heart and a scary encounter with Lady Catherine. When everything seems to go awry we discover the true nature of many people, and end with a conclusion both happy and sad.
 
Well I must have you hooked by now. With this Austen novel, we see how little power a respectable woman with a seriously flawed family and little money has in the regency era.  Greatly dependent on a good marriage, Lizzy, despite having strong morals and determination, has few options to secure a happy and  fulfilling life. Austen highlights this well with enduring hilarity and sorrow, and gives you a story that will likely become a favourite. Austen’s novels all seem to revolve around women and love or marriage, but what really sets P&P apart are the wonderful characters she has created. The drama and humour that is entrenched in this book will likely glue you to it’s pages, and as the characters come alive we get a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young woman at the turn of the nineteenth century.
 
Note: I would also like to point out that fans of Pride and Prejudice have ample well-written fan-fiction and film adaptations at their disposal.  There are hundreds of sequels published which range in topic from zombies to over-the-top romance, and almost every other story line you can think of! A future post I am working on will hopefully sort out a few of the good ones.
 

Austenfest Week One: Sense and Sensibility

Welcome, friends, to a celebration of the novels of Jane Austen! Each Monday we will honour one of her six beloved full-length books (in order of publication) concluding with an appraisal of the impact and implications of her life-long work. Austen wrote posthumously in the regency era (around the turn of the nineteenth century), and has a large body of work, that, though admired, was never appreciated in her lifetime as it is now. For those of you new to Austen, or limited to the movie adaptations of her novels, I hope I can induce you to select one of her compelling stories to read.  For others who, like me a few weeks ago, have limited their knowledge to only one or two of her novels, I hope my guide will help you continue your journey with Austen. And for the ones who don’t think Austen is for you, check this out before you make a mistake. If that doesn’t work, try this or that. Boom, you’re hooked.

Sense and Sensibility

As Austen’s first full-length book, she certainly sets the tone for all of her books to come. Full of the virtues of marriage for love along with the consequences of wealth, Austen uses her two favorite themes well, interlaced so perfectly with intrigue and little twists you don’t expect. 

Having thoroughly researched the novel as I do for all my books, I came across a review I feel could hardly be a better summation and critique.  Despite preferring my own analysis, I can’t let my pride get the better of me, and for your benefit, I’ll use parts of it in this report.  I highly suggest you check out the original, by Russ Allbery, here.

At the onset of the book we see Mr. Dashwood, father of John and his half-sisters Elinor, Marianne and young Margaret, upon his deathbed making his son promise to take care of his sisters and step-mother after his passing. Since legal entanglements make most of his wealth go directly to his son, he has left little for his wife and daughters, whom John quickly promises to look after. Unfortunately we are soon made aware of his character and, even worse, of his wife, Fanny’s, which bask in vanity and snobbish behavior and quickly lead them to decide on drastically limiting the ‘help’ they will offer their family. The women soon vacate their beloved home for a cozy though chilly cabin in another county, but not before Elinor is courted by Edward Ferrars, her unfriendly sister-in-law’s eldest brother. The shy Mr. Ferrars seems to be perfectly amiable and well-suited to Elinor, which delights her mother and sisters but terrifies Fanny, who with her indomitable mother, have high aspirations for him: plans which definitely don’t include the penniless Miss Dashwood. Continue reading

Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier

Author Tracy Chevalier

I have now read three books by Tracy Chevalier, and each one has been very enjoyable. My first experience with her writing was Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which the unknown story behind the famous Dutch painting is explored. Then, I was amazed at Chevalier’s ability to communicate the unspoken. She is able to convey the meaning behind multifaceted human behaviours, such as a glance or momentary change in someone’s expression – and in as few words as possible. The skill a writer needs to do this without being verbose is (I think) vast. The writing in that novel was just like the painting it centered on. Highly skilled and technical, and yet simplistically elegant.

Then I read The Lady and the Unicorn, and discovered Girl With a Pearl Earring was not a one-time fluke masterpiece. I wasn’t so much a fan of the subject matter this time (parts were rather more lusty than I’m inclined to enjoy), but it still captured my imagination. The world of medieval tapestry-making was opened up to me. Again, Chevalier displayed her prowess at making art history not just more interesting than it already is, but at communicating the complicated relationships that were required to finish these works of art the world has so come to love. Continue reading