Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Genre: Chick-Lit
Main characters: Charlotte Constance Kinder
Time and place: an 1816-like contemporary British retreat
First sentence:No one who knew Charlotte Constance Kinder since her youth would suppose her born to be a heroine.
Verdict: Liked it better than I liked Austenland :)

Summary:
Charlotte Kinder is going through a rough patch: her husband asked for a divorce, turning her nice, ordered world upside down. She feels she needs a vacation, somewhere far away. Perhaps another era entirely. And thus she ends up in Austenland, an estate where female tourists get to live like in one of Jane Austen’s novels (complete with courtship, a ball, and a proposal at the end).

Charlotte knows that the dark, brooding man who acts attracted to her is nothing but an actor following a script. Yet he seems so mysterious… can she, should she join the game?

General impression
I have no idea why I felt it lacked depth. The characters are likable, the heroine gets to grow throughout the book, the mystery is somewhat mysterious (although the author tells us who the guilty part is even before we find out there’s been a crime). However, it felt like the quintessential three stars book: I liked it, I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t feel there was anything in it truly memorable in any way. Sort of a shame, as I am certain I could LOVE Shannon Hale’s style1.

Setting
One of the most interesting parts in the Austenland books is Austenland itself. A large estate mimicking those of Austen’s time, Pembroke Park tries to be as faithful to the Regency era as possible. Even the served foods respect the theme, including such timeless classics as pickled quail eggs and sheep eyeballs. Nothing modern is allowed anywhere on the estate, so as not to break the illusion. Actors are hired to play maids and valets and visitors, and everyone’s speech is delightfully quaint. I almost think I would love visiting Austenland myself2.

Characters
Charlotte, our heroine, is thusly described on the very first page:

She was a practical girl from infancy, only fussing as much as was necessary and exhibiting no alarming opinions.
[...]
She was… nice. Even her closest friends, many of whom liked her a great deal, couldn’t come up with a more spectacular adjective.

She got married at twenty-three, because that’s what people do, and had two children, thinking that becoming a mother will make her feel an adult, and as such in control of her life. After a while, when she was done with what she thought was expected of her, she also turned out to be a smart business woman: she started a landscaping web site that made her & her family rich.

Unlike the usual heroines in contemporary Austen-related books, Charlotte has never read Jane Austen. She does so after her husband left her for a woman named Justice, and is glad to discover the characters feel like old friends, thawing a little of the cold desert her heart felt like ever since the betrayal. And then taking a vacation to go and live ‘the Austen life’ seemed like a logical next step :)

I have liked Charlotte quite a bit. She is indeed very nice, in an too-much-for-her-own-good kind of way, yet not unbelievably so3. She is also funny, and smart, and although for most of the book she lacks confidence in herself she is nonetheless an interesting character4.

As for the two male characters5, we have light versus darkness: there’s Eddie, a guy that I kept picturing as quite young, and blonde, although IIRC he is described otherwise, and that smiled often, showing off his dimples; and then there’s Thomas Mallery, someone who smiled all of one time throughout the whole book and who, as Charlotte’s mind puts it, has probably smoldered since birth :) (“While the other two gentlemen would look comfortable on a GQ cover, Mr. Mallery didn’t seem likely to feel comfortable anywhere–except maybe a castle on a moor.” — why yes, a sort of Darcy to the extreme :) )

As supporting cast we have the same British-wannabe Miss Charming, an old acquaintance of ours, that in this volume gets to have a back story, and depth (I loved seeing that, although the ending she got did seem a bit far-fetched), plus a down-to-Earth teenage star, that I very much liked despite thinking of her as a sort of Miley Cyrus (and I am so not a fan). And then there’s the landlady that insists on keeping up 1816′s appearances, the awkward-moving valet, and some more.

Relationships
show spoiler

Plot
While seeing how the heroine managed to find a true hero in a make-believe world could have perhaps been interesting enough by itself, the author chose to add another layer to the book: true to the parallel with Northanger Abbey, Charlotte’s overactive mind busies itself with trying to find a mysterious murderer, although no body is to be found and she is not entirely sure a murder has taken place either. It’s been fun watching her explore options, and one of the things I liked about the book.

What I liked
On the topic of ‘details that I have enjoyed’, they are as follows:

1) Charlotte’s favorite Austen character is Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, the one with the overactive imagination :) Quite a nice change from the overly-used Elizabeth Bennett, usually nominated for the honor.
2) the actor playing Eddie describes himself at one time as having read every Pratchett novel at least three times *aawwwww* :) :)

The writing feels a bit overly-simplistic at times6, while at others is very nice indeed. My favorite quote:

The kiss had shifted the whole world forty-five degrees, and she was still falling.
[...and then after a while...]
The world kept tipping, and maybe she was upside down now, blood rushing to her head, feet in the stars.

Thoughts on the title
Love it! Especially the way it implies there’s something dark going on :)

Thoughts on the ending
Nice :) :)
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who thinks they’ll enjoy a nice chick-lit book whose action takes place in an 1816-like setting :)
You don’t need to have read Austenland before this one, as the two are but loosely related.

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Companion novel:
Austenland

Written by the same author:
The Book of a Thousand Days

  1. judging from the quotes on Goodreads from her fairy tale books []
  2. although then I’d have to make do without the Internet, oh my []
  3. I am actually curious to see other reviewers’ take on this, as her niceness does go to some extreme lengths at times — however, I myself used to be that kind of people-pleaser so I for one have no trouble believing it []
  4. or at the very least I was rather curious what she will do to find the key to the mystery []
  5. another thing I liked about this book was the same ‘I wonder who will she end up with’ thrill I remember having while reading the first Austenland book, a feeling that one very rarely gets with chick-lit; or at least I have very rarely gotten []
  6. which I think is the reason I did not like the book more []

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Genre: Chick lit
Main characters: Jane Hayes/Erstwhile
Time and place: about 2007 I would guess; most of the action takes place in Pembrook Park, Kent, England
First sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her.

Summary: Jane Hayes is a young woman with a career in graphic design and a disastrous love life. The latter is, in no small part, caused by her obsession with the books and times of Jane Austen and, most of all, with Mr. Darcy. When her great-aunt Carolyn finds out about Jane’s problem, she sends her to a sort of Austen camp: an estate in England where everyone acts like the year is 1816 and actors are paid to help the guests having an experience as immersive as possible, including gentlemen suitors set on declaring their unending and irrepressible love (as in all Austen novels). Eventually, Jane decides to go, in hopes that the experience will help her set her illusions aside forever. And yet once there she discovers that keeping track of what is real and what is not it’s a bit harder than she has previously thought.

I liked the way Jane grows and develops throughout the book. She is aware that her intensity and her expectations are a roadblock in her path to happiness, and all the time while at Pembrook she is doing her best to play along and, at the same time, reinvent herself. Day by day she discovers that, after all, she could very well enjoy the trip as well as the destination, and that a relationship can be savoured even if a wedding does not appear on the horizon. Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of harmless flirting now and then. Jane does change after her stint in Austenland show spoiler

The writing style is casual and enjoyable, sprinkled with funny bits that made me smile (such as “She thought she should say something witty here. She said, “Really?” “), and some pretty intense moments too (“[He] smiled in his way, the way that made her stare back and wish she could breathe.“). I couldn’t help but very much admire the diligence of the author when she created the characters’ Pembrook lines, because a good chunk of the book is written in Austen-like style, and, at least for a profane like me, it sounded quite close to the original.

Speaking of which, another thing that mightily amused me throughout the book was imagining what I myself would have done in such a setting, being forced to talk in such a style. Each time I ended up being very much impressed with the way the author has chosen to have Jane and the rest of the cast go back and forth between conversational tones: everyone is doing their best to act as 1816 as possible in order not to ruin the Experience for everyone else, and yet their true upbringing and habits do slip through the pretense now and then (making it all the more real because I really wouldn’t have believed a complete change from one way of talking to another can be achieved on such a short notice).

What I liked most: The fact that the ending is not obvious until the last few pages. Or at least it wasn’t for me. Oh, and the whole idea of an Austen-esque estate making guests feel like they went back in time is pretty cool too.

What I liked least: Chick lit, easy reading, nothing to take seriously…what’s there not to like? :)

Recommend it to? Since it’s a chick lit book I obviously recommend it to chick lit fans. Nevertheless I do encourage anyone (especially if they have a penchant for Mr. Darcy) to at least see what it’s about. It’s not perfect but if you’re in the mood for something light it might be just the thing :)

Companion novel:
Midnight in Austenland

Written by the same author:
The Book of a Thousand Days