Review: Jane Austen Ruined My Life, by Beth Pattillo

I have to tell you, I was all set to hate this book. For one thing, it arrived in the mail in a completely unsolicited fashion, and so I took one look at it and thought, I really don’t want to read this right now. And for a long time I didn’t want to read it — because I had other things to read, things I’d bought or asked for, and anyway, I thought that the whole premise was, let’s face it, kind of dopey.

But you know, actually, it’s pretty okay. Here’s the back cover:

Emma Grant has always done everything just the way her minister father told her she should — a respectable marriage, a teaching job, and plans for the requisite two children. Life was prodigiously good, as her favourite author Jane Austen might say, until the day Emma finds her husband in bed with another woman. Suddenly, all her romantic notions à la Austen as exposed for the foolish dreams they are.

Denied tenure in the wake of the scandal, Emma packs up what few worldly possessions she has left and heads to England on a quest to find the missing letters of Jane Austen. The reclusive dowager Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot claims to have the author’s missing correspondence, but Mrs. Parrot proces coy about her prize possessions, sending Emma on a series of Austen-related tasks that bring her closer and closer to the secrets Jane Austen had hoped to bury. As Emma learns more about the beloved author’s life, she comes to realize how much Jane Austen has to teach all of us.

That’s the basic premise and it’s more or less correct, if you substitute “on the kitchen table” for “in bed” in the first paragraph. But the blurb also highlights what I see as one of the basic problems of this text: who, exactly, thinks that Jane Austen is all about romantic happy endings? Anyone? I mean, yes, of course she wrote some highly romantic stories. But they are (a) fiction, and (b) full of not-so-happy and not-so-romantic situations. Take just Pride and Prejudice as example. Yes, you’ve got Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley, and their plots are romantic and end more or less happily. But you’ve also got Charlotte and Mr. Collins, an unsuitable couple in a marriage of desperation (on her part, at least). There’s Lydia and Wickham, who elope, live in perpetual debt and quickly grow less and less fond of each other. There are Caroline Bingley, Lady Catherine, and Anne de Bourgh, who are all rather disappointed with Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth. There’s Mary Bennett, who will likely never marry. And of course, the incomparable Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, wholly unsuitable for each other and trapped in a marriage devoid of genuine love and respect. These are the happy endings that Emma Grant has latched on to?

Which brings me to my second beef with the novel, which is the protagonist herself. She’s kind of dumb (see above), and a bit of a whiner to boot. Girl needs to step up and take some responsibility for her own life, and stop blaming her life’s problems on her upbringing and her perhaps overly zealous reading of Austen. She annoyed me to no end.

That being said, this isn’t really a bad little story. There’s a secret society of Austen guardians — the Formidables — who make Emma hop around England doing secret tasks, in return for what they say are nearly three thousand unpublished Austen letters. And of course, there is a romantic subplot, as Emma tries to decide between Adam, her former best friend, whom she hasn’t seen since her unwise marriage, and Barry, the handsome American she meets in London — not to mention her ex-husband, Edward. And Emma is desperate to keep her true reasons for being in England from Adam, even has he is busy hiding something — something big — from her.

Jane Austen Ruined my Life, aside from the aforementioned flaws, was a pleasant, quick, and undemanding read. It’s not high literature but it’d be good for the beach. I read it swiftly following several gruesome murder mysteries and it served as an excellent palate cleanser.

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