Like any other terribly earnest book, My Jane Austen Summer (MJAS) comes replete with book club discussion questions and an author Q&A as though the publisher is fearful that without this kindly assistance the reader would not be able to discern the subtext. Thus we learn MJAS is supposed to be ‘The Jane Austen Book Club relocated to Howard’s End narrated by an American Bridget Jones.’ In other words, our protagonist is one of those endearingly whimsical characters long of the mainstream American novel whose ‘peppiness’ gets lost in translation as annoying.
And annoying Lily Berry is. From stalking the ex-boyfriend, fired for reading on the job, a father who marries a long term mistress before the recently deceased mother is barely cold in the grave, Lily at loose end decides to take up book-shop proprietor Vera’s invitation to spend the summer in England at a Jane Austen festival. In case you did not consider her enough of a whack job, Lily has an imaginary friend “My Jane Austen.” Mmmm.
Relocating the action in England is where the book really begins to falter. If one was only to derive an impression of England from this book, we would be of the belief that England is a quaint backward country, where electricity is a scarcity, books shops are unheard of (because an US imprint of Real Estate for Dummies is the go to source for UK contract law apparently), Ladette to Lady is an accurate portrayal of the aristocracy, and only Americans truly appreciate Jane Austen.
Of course, there is the perfunctory romance between Lily and (almost) man of the cloth Willis Somerford in the attic. It does not end in marriage as the author tells us, “Don’t give a character a wedding; teach her to love herself and she’ll find happiness for a lifetime”. The more cynical among us would say we are being primed for a sequel: A season in Persuasion.
Mansfield Park. The difficult novel. Karen Fowler gave it short shift in The Jane Austen Book Club and Cindy Jones’s treatment isn’t much better. Lily’s journey theoretically echoes Fanny’s. Mary Crawford would be closer to the mark. Americans are simply uncomfortable with introvert characters without pathologising shyness as a mental illness. Lily is certainly not an introvert. We are invited to consider Jones’s competing propositions (the Fanny Wars) as she cites the dominant latter twentieth century Austen academics but adds nothing to what Patricia Rozema already made explicit in her political take of Mansfield Park.
Two words were missing from this novel: Inheritance Tax. It’s not a terrible read but it isn’t great one either.
(2011: ISBN: 978-0-06-200397-3)