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Book Review: Midnight in Austenland

Posted by gck Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Genre: Chick lit, mystery
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: fans of Jane Austen pastiche, people who enjoy gothic romance/mystery, fans of Northanger Abbey
Received ARC e-galley through NetGalley.

Back-cover summary:
When Charlotte Kinder treats herself to a two-week vacation at Austenland, she happily leaves behind her ex-husband and his delightful new wife, her ever-grateful children, and all the rest of her real life in America. She dons a bonnet and stays at a country manor house that provides an immersive Austen experience, complete with gentleman actors who cater to the guests' Austen fantasies.

Everyone at Pembrook Park is playing a role, but increasingly, Charlotte isn't sure where roles end and reality begins. And as the parlor games turn a little bit menacing, she finds she needs more than a good corset to keep herself safe. Is the brooding Mr. Mallery as sinister as he seems? What is Miss Gardenside's mysterious ailment? Was that an actual dead body in the secret attic room? And – perhaps of the most lasting importance – could the stirrings in Charlotte's heart be a sign of real-life love?

The follow-up to reader favorite Austenland provides the same perfectly plotted pleasures, with a feisty new heroine, plenty of fresh and frightening twists, and the possibility of a romance that might just go beyond the proper bounds of Austen's world. How could it not turn out right in the end?

My review:
I listened to Austenland as an audiobook, and I enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure. It employed the technique of injecting well-known phrases directly from Jane Austen’s writing that I find annoying, but I was able to overlook it because I liked the idea of Austenland so much – a place ladies could go to be transported into an Austen fantasyland, with costumes, balls, and swoonworthy gentlemen paid to be fallen in love with. I was really excited when I saw that there would be a return to Austenland in a second book with a main character that seemed quite different from young Austen-addict Jane Hayes from the first. Charlotte Kinder was an older woman with children and a failed marriage. Potential for self-discovery and a more complex love story, perhaps?

Because of my love for Rebecca, I’ve always had this idea that I enjoy gothic romances. However, with some of the books in the gothic romance genre that I’ve read in the last few years, I’m wondering if that’s actually true. I probably wouldn’t put this book into that genre, but it’s darker than I expected, with elements of mystery and thriller that I didn’t expect at all. It’s supposed to be a tribute to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which I haven’t read and I suspect many Austen fans haven’t either. Maybe if I was more familiar with that story, I would have appreciated the mystery plotline in this one, but instead, I found it to be unnecessary and strange. If anything, it made Charlotte seem overly paranoid, and so many dark, “real life” things seeping into the story (like Mr. Wattlesbrook’s poor behavior) made it impossible to immerse into the fantasy. I thought the fantasy was the whole point of these types of books! As a story trying to be serious, it doesn’t have nearly enough substance.

On the other hand, Charlotte as a character is not a bad one. She’s pretty funny, makes interesting observations, and does seem “clever” as she is dubbed, though also somewhat naïve. It’s easy to sympathize with her because her problems are accessible: her husband left her for another woman, she loves her kids but worries that they’re happy without her, etc. She worries and feels sad without being overly whiny. And by the end of the story, she is a stronger, more confident woman, maybe someone suitable to be a Jane Austen heroine.

But seriously… I just want to be able to book a vacation at Pembrook Park. Why does this not exist for real?!


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