25 January 2015

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (The Austen Project)

Summary from Goodreads:
From Joanna Trollope, one of the most insightful chroniclers of family life writing fiction today, comes a contemporary retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s classic novel of love, money, and two very different sisters.

John Dashwood promised his dying father that he would take care of his half sisters. But his wife, Fanny, has no desire to share their newly inherited estate. When she descends upon Norland Park, the three Dashwood girls—Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—are faced with the realities of a cold world and the cruelties of life without their father, their home, or their money.

With her sparkling wit, Joanna Trollope casts a clever, satirical eye on the tales of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

Reimagining Sense and Sensibility in a fresh, modern new light, she spins the novel’s romance, bonnets, and betrothals into a wonderfully witty coming-of-age story about the stuff that really makes the world go around. For when it comes to money, some things never change....

Someone somewhere got a wild idea to get best-selling authors to "officially" rewrite Jane Austen's major novels for a twenty-first century audience.

Well, OK...Austen sequels, rewrites, updates, variations, and etc. have been an industry for years.  So sure, a few more won't hurt.  The series started with Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, continued with Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (reviewed briefly on Goodreads), Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, and Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld should be coming out in 2015 (I don't have a US release date for that).  I decided I'd at least give the re-tellings a try.

Sense & Sensibility as told by Joanna Trollope is a perfectly every-day novel.  I've never read any of Joanna Trollope's novels so I can't compare to her usual style but S&S is adequate.  The sentence-level writing reads well and some of the plot updates (Marianne's illness, Brandon's military experience, the Ferrars obsession with money) work very well.

However, however...I was immediately put off by a change in Edward Ferrars's backstory and never got back on an even keel.  He is changed from a diffident, but upstanding young man interested in entering the Church to a vague, unfocused drifter who was sent to school in Plymouth after being expelled from Eton for being the lookout man in a drug ring.

Excuse me?

From there we get extreme examples of bad behavior from Fanny Dashwood, John Dashwood, Marianne, Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood (here named Belle). Belle and Marianne are so incapable of recognizing that bills such as the gas and electricity must be paid it that it becomes irritating. The number of times Eleanor points out she needs a job and every one pooh-poohs the idea....  Margaret is now a caricature of a grouchy modern teenager. (Does anyone know if British teenagers use the "w" sign from the movie Clueless as "whatever? Because I haven't seen an American teenager use that since I was in college and that's about 15 years ago now)

Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte Palmer (among others) no longer just seem self-centered and silly.  Their teasing of Marianne reaches a level of mean-spiritedness that I didn't think possible.  In the scene where Marianne sees Willoughby in London - at a wedding reception that Charlotte has managed to "get them invited to" instead of a ball - the whole thing is recorded and put on YouTube (of course).  Charlotte shows up at her mother's house and insists on playing the video over and over for Eleanor and commenting almost gleefully about what happened.  There is a lack of authorial distance in this book - Austen uses the distance for ironic commentary in the original novel that is lacking in this re-telling and it makes the characters' actions simply nasty.

And then there is the same complaint that I had with Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey - the plot is in lockstep with the original.  There are absolutely no deviations, nothing allowed to develop organically to better fit with the modern time period.  As a result the story begins to feel clunky and boring.  Does Fanny immediately start redecorating Norland? Yes. Does Marianne like music and Eleanor drawing? Yes. Does Brandon immediately fall in love with Marianne? Yes. Does Marianne get caught in the rain, requiring dramatic rescue by Willoughby? Of course.  Does Willoughby give Marianne an expensive gift? This time it's a car. Is Brandon called away right before a picnic allowing Marianne and Willoughby to sneak off to Allenham?  Yep.  Is Lucy Steele out to marry money and almost sunk by the loose lips of her idiot sister? Yep (and the sister is actually one of the most annoying and least believable characters ever written).  Does Mrs. Ferrars bang on about some Morton girl marrying Edward?  Yes.  Does it all work out in the end including forgiveness for everyone?  Yes, yes, yes.

In short, the Austen Project novels, so far, seem to be best suited for those readers who are unfamiliar with Austen's original novels.  Which I find to be galling because there is nothing wrong with the original novels and they can be read by academics and plebeians alike.  Meaning, if you are as familiar with the original novels as I am you are going to be just as bored and underwhelmed.  If one wants to re-tell a familiar story and update it for a contemporary audience there are so many successful adaptations: Clueless, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  Each of those took the original story and concept and adapted the concept to fit the time period rather than bend the time period to fit the idiosyncrasies of the plot.  I'll probably give the McCall Smith Emma adaptation a shot but if that's as underwhelming as Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey then I might bail at fifty percent. 

Dear FTC: I received a finished review copy from the publisher.

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