Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jane-ite on holiday

We just got a raft of titles published for adults that our beloved audiobook publishers think might have teen interest, so I just finished Austenland by Shannon Hale. If I had the time in my reading/listening life to read much adult fiction, I'm sure this one would have ended up on a plane ride sometime. I love Jane Austen. I loved Jane Austen before Colin Firth. (I am an English major, and am not a spring chicken.) And like the heroine of this novel (and others before her) I do find Colin Firth as Darcy extremely swoony, so Austenland's set-up appealed to me. On the whole, though, I think it suffers in comparison to its predecessor, Bridget Jones's Diary.

In Austenland, 30-something singleton (to borrow a phrase from the aforementioned BJ) Jane Hayes is bequeathed a trip to Pembroke Park from a distant, although perceptive, relation. Jane suffers from Darcy/Firth monomania -- her string of unsuccessful relationships are the direct result of each man's inability to measure up to the fictional owner of Pemberley. At Pembroke Park, visitors are invited to indulge in Austeniana to the nth degree: Assuming the persona of an unmarried, but eligible, heroine, they are properly wooed and won by the eligible gentlemen. The eligible gentlemen -- and the ladies appropriate to the plot -- are all played by actors. Jane embarks on this holiday, hopeful that the artifice of the situation will bury her Darcy fixation for once and for all.

Once she arrives, Jane is transformed into Miss Jane Erstwhile and vacillates between a sort of self-contempt for participating and an enjoyment of the pecularities of the experience. The story is always from her perspective, but is told by a super-omniscient narrator who tells the tale in a voice of affectionate cynicism. This narrator breaks the forward momentum of the plot with brief vignettes describing the arc of Jane's relationships with her 13 boyfriends. These are quite funny, although I have to say that the shtick got tired well before the end.

Austenland is narrated by a familiar favorite, Katherine Kellgren, who did such a fine job narrating the Odyssey Honor book, Bloody Jack. I can still hear Jacky, and what I found particularly admirable in her performance here is how adult she sounds. Truly, when Kellgren was reading Jacky, she was creating a believeable young person. (I'm pleased to report there will be more of Jacky, the audio version of her second adventure has just been nominated.)

The woman can reel off British accents -- in all their variations -- with confidence and aplomb and she does a fine job here. She can skillfully switch characters in dialogue, leaving you knowing exactly who is speaking. She ferrets out the humor and delivers it beautifully. Kellgren sounds less confident in her portrayal of one character hailing from the American South who tries to speak with an English accent (no easy task for a narrator). However, what I really felt was lacking in her performance was a distinction between Jane and that all-knowing narrator. I wanted to hear more vulnerability in Jane, what I heard was the narrator's slightly cynical take on Jane's neediness.

I think some teen readers will truly enjoy this, so I'm pleased that our publishers are thinking broadly and sending along some technically adult fare. Austenland was kind of a no-brainer in this area, particular since the author is more well-known for her young adult titles. Among the titles waiting in my pile is a novel by Peter Carey. Now he's a really adult writer!

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