Where's the book?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jane, Jane. And Curtis.

My figlio maggiore (a/k/a older son) used to live next door to a grad student in English who had a bumper sticker on her car that I really liked. “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen,” it said. Interestingly, the owner of the car was a scary looking lesbian with a lot of piercings and a shaved head. Which proves, if you ask me, that Jane has something for everyone.

I’ve read all of Jane’s books many times over and if I had to pick a favorite it would be Sense and Sensibility. Or maybe Pride and Prejudice. Or maybe Persuasion. It’s like a Sophie’s Choice (another good book): I love all of them so much that I hate to choose just one.

But I can say with confidence that my least favorite is Northanger Abbey, which means I just love it with half my heart, not all of it. I re-read it again a couple of weeks ago (#36) and it’s an awful lot of fun, but it’s Jane Austen light. Or maybe even “lite.” It’s as if Jane wrote a young adult novel: The main character, Catherine Morland, is a somewhat silly 17-year-old and even though the other characters in Jane’s books are young (Elinor Dashwood—the possessor of such great “sense”—is all of 19 and her sister Marianne is 16! wise Elizabeth Bennet is just 20!) Catherine feels young: childlike, unperceptive, vastly na├»ve. The story is slim—Catherine meets a cute guy, a false friend, a good friend, a not-so-cute guy. It feels a little like high school. In fact, false friend Isabella Thorpe could be a prototype mean girl. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and of course has the requisite Jane Austen happy ending. If I had a teenage girl to introduce to Jane, this would definitely be the book I’d start with.

The R-rated Mansfield?
But after Northanger, I needed some Jane with a little more meat. Since I try to rotate them in order, that meant Mansfield Park (#37), which is possibly my next to least favorite Austen novel, which means that I only love it with three quarters of my heart. The story certainly has more meat to it, and some wonderful characters, but for me the little worm at the core of the apple are the two main characters: Fanny Price and Edward Bertram. Fanny is so timid, so reticent, that she almost vanishes from the page. She’s too good, too simple, too sweet. And Edward comes across as a bit of a judgmental prig. But everything else is pure cream. Fanny’s aunt, Mrs. Bertram, is a marvelous portrait of a woman so indolent she’s practically catatonic. And her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (the cat in Harry Potter was named for her), is one of Jane’s wonderful nasty comic women, cruel to poor (literally and figuratively) Fanny, grasping, self-congratulatory, and hilariously miserly. The story bounces along as only Jane can bounce it, with appropriate punishments for the wicked and rewards for the good, a wedding and a happily ever after.

#38 required a departure from Regency England, and a jump across the pond to a ritzy New England boarding school and the novel Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Although it’s about a young woman and her coming of age, it’s worlds and lifetimes away from a Jane Austen novel, not only in its setting, but in its style. Like Jane, Sittenfeld writes wonderful dialogue, but unlike Austen, her plotting is almost non-existent. There’s not so much a story as a diary of four years in the life of our main character, a scholarship student from faraway (yet not at all exotic) Indiana. Lee Fiora, the narrator, struggles academically and socially, and is so withdrawn as to almost fade from the page. Her insights about class and money and teenage interrelations are occasionally fascinating, but for much of the book I just wanted her to get out of her dorm room and do something…anything! Go to a movie, get high, make friends, join a team, pick a hobby! She is intimidated by everything, and she knows it, and she spends most of the book analyzing it. She’s insightful about her own state of passivity, but it never changes, and it eventually gets old. When things finally start happening in senior year, there’s a bit of a plot, but not much. A novel without a plot isn’t much of a read. Sittenfeld should have spent some time studying Austen, if you ask me.  

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