I like Shannon Hale. She's a local author and I thoroughly enjoy her technique and style. She's very whimsical, thoughtful, smart, and engaging...with a certain genre. THIS novel - Austenland - is NOT her genre. She's authored such stories as Goose Girl (one of my favorites) and Princess Academy. They are considered young adult/teenager (female teenager really) type novels that explore such timeless themes as coming of age, the search for identity, finding strength in your talents, having confidence, and using our gifts for good. Timeless, classic, humorous, ironic, fantastical - she can write these things. However, she didn't do as well with Austenland - clearly a stab at a more "adult" genre - which basically bled and died from the wound. Sigh, here's what happened. *Spoilers to follow...
The name makes it clear that she's sticking with her respective female audience - playing on the Jane Austen if not love, but respectful recognition, found in most if not all of the female race to have come in contact with her. Need I only say Mr Darcy? (What the? Did you hear that collective sigh?...lets try again...) Mr. Darcy....Siiiiiiiiiiiigh. The male hero of all male hero's in Austen's timeless classic (and all her novels really)- Pride and Prejudice. The heroine in Austenland - set in modern day New York and then "18th Century" mock-England - is a 30 something single struggling to let go of the Mr. Darcy ideal that she feels has become an obsession. Comparing men she meets with the Mr Darcy in her mind as well as a lifetime of "bad boyfriends" (which really just made me hurt inside - why are men so mean sometimes?) - has lead Jane to swear off men forever- she's on the brink of accepting life-long spinsterhood. However, when her rich Aunt dies and leaves her a vacation at Pembrook Park - a "resort" of sorts in pastoral England where the 21st Century is forgotten and Jane Austen's 18th Century sense of propriety, cordiality, mannerisms, irony, corsets and girdles is readily and most strictly embraced, Jane discovers and opportunity to embrace her fantasy one last time before laying it all to rest - forever. Pembrook Park is a place in which one might inundate oneself in the timeless romanticism that is Austen's writing playground. Needless to say, I wasn't convinced. Throughout the entire novel I remembered it was all a charade; when I think Hale intended the reader to forget that those who participated in the charade seemed a little crazy, and that the whole idea was rather ridiculous. It's clearly something it seems that only crazy rich bored people would do anyway. Well, Hale did get that right - most of the other guests in the Austenland hideaway were in fact, bored, rich, often married, women. Rather pathetic. I admit I was impressed at Hale's audacious attempt to recreate Austen-esque conversation and environment. Really, that was rather well done - it just wasn't believe able. Now, on to the plot issues.
The entire point of Jane going to Austenland was to plant her feet in reality. To realize she can still have a high standard in her dating life - without the impossible and unrealistic standard of a "Mr Darcy" - the man she had started to compare all men with. Hale's books "seem" predictable, but she is a genius at her plot twists and turns - usually putting some of your suspicions to rest just in time to suddenly bring them up again. I do like that. Of course - there was the predictable "Darcy" actor Jane was immediately introduced to, a Mr Nobley (most of the characters these vacationers interact with are actors paid to "woo" the women who have paid "damn good money" to be wooed while their rich husbands are out making money and finding "Austenlands" of their own - wink wink, nudge nudge, STD - what?) who was stand-offish, sarcastic, stingingly clever, good-looking, proud, and rather prejudice. Dare I say he was nigh unlikable?Predictably - Jane detested him "at first" (eye roll - of course she did). Oh brother. From the start I knew Jane would end up with this bloke - especially after she had a "fling" with the Gardender (which in an eventful twist ended up being an actor as well! SHOCK...not really) that seemed very "Mr. Whiscombe-esque", and then ended up rejecting Mr. Dar...er Mr Nobley after he finally "warmed up to her", declared he tried not to like her because of the type of woman he assumed she was, and then declaring that he "loved her most ardently..." Come on Hale! Really? Austen DID that ALREADY! Well, Jane rejected the poor blighter (as any good Elizabeth Bennett initially would), deciding that she had finally overcome her "Darcy" fantasy and knew that he was just playing his part, and felt she had finally left her obsessive unrealistic expectations behind. Furthermore, she also discovered that she would not swear off men - but be more demanding that they treat her kindly, not so quick to be swept away, and more confident in her own abilities. Essentially, she would be herself and not worry about that aspect of life until it decidedly came to her in a slightly flawed, but absolutely lovely package. THIS - was a great theme - so far.
I thought the entire point of the novel was to let go of unrealistic expectations, not to the point of lowering standards or losing hope, but so life could be livable, and you wouldn't constantly be manipulating yourself in relationships. The idea that REALITY shouldn't always be considered negative - but actual attainable happiness can be found within it's stark grips. Then the clincher of the novel - something so completely unrealistic, not plausible, and that has never happened to any real woman, nor performed by any real man, that I've ever heard of. It destroyed "the point" I thought was the one redeeming quality of the book. After being soundly rejected by Jane - Nobley AND the Gardener (who discovers he really does like her - even though the "fling" they had had been set up by the conniving Mrs. Whattlesworth to "please all the customers that come to Pembrook for whatever insecure and longingly pathetic reason") follow her to Heathrow airport - and both declare that the feelings the have are true and sincere. They then commence to physically FIGHT in the airport as each try to convince Jane that they want a "real" chance with her, and they would do whatever it takes to win her. Puh-LEASE! This DOES NOT HAPPEN! What happened to the "have hope in a happy reality" theme? THEN! AFTER Jane soundly rejects them both again - it is Mr. Nobley aka Mr Darcy figure - that buys a ticket, gets on the plane (of which he is OF COURSE deathly afraid of) and says something corny and most importantly unrealistic about how Jane is unique, a real person, a woman he feels he can't live without and hopes that maybe, someday, she will feel like she can't be without him either. Until then, of course, he will fly to America where he is clearly going to relocate for a woman he met during an Austenland charade, and love her the rest of his life. Honestly. Honestly. What happened to this story? This is not realistic!! Now - I love fairy tales and they are the anti-thesis of reality. That's why we love them. That's why I love them! Women love Jane Austen because they are the anti-thesis of what relationships are really like. Come on ladies! Come on Hale! You ruined a good thing! Knights DON'T slay dragons for damsels. Men DON'T chase after women ESPECIALLY if they have been once (in this instance twice) rejected. Women want them too - but in real life Jane would've gotten on the plane alone and flown back to NYC to continue working through her issues. Men don't chase after women. There is no sense of "courtship" or "proving your feelings" or "bravery in love" anymore. I don't think there really ever was - other than in works of fiction. FICTION. It allows us to dream and fantasize - but you've gotta keep one of those feet in reality I'm afraid. Men DON'T chase women onto planes...they CAN live without you because there are a lot of "fish in the sea" and NO ONE has ever REALLY been fought over by two very exceptional, kind, good looking (British I might add) men who both want to sweep you off your feet. No. One.
So which is it then Hale? Is wanting the Mr. Darcy in our lives realistic or isn't it? Jane got her Darcy - which totally blows the entire "be realistic" ideal of letting go of our fantasies and just accepting that there are decent guys out there (er...hopefully?) and we're lucky to find one of them with only a handful of flaws. Everyone has flaws. You have to be realistic and work through things. And, most "ardently", there are no Mr. Darcy's.