Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jerry Bruckheimer's Jane Austen

Joan Aiken, author of The Five-Minute Marriage (the Regency romance, NOT the self-help book for busy couples), has written a number of books based on the characters of Jane Austen.  I loved Jane Fairfax, Lady Catherine's Necklace, and Mansfield Revisited, and so I started The Five-Minute Marriage with pretty clear expectations of a drawing room drama.

The beginning of the book did nothing to disabuse me of those expectations.  Philadelphia Carteret gives music lessons and looks after her ailing, slightly foolish mother, who was disinherited by her wealthy family long ago.  When financial need sends Delphie to her great uncle's estate to ask for a small financial bequest, she learns that an imposter has been using her identity and being supported by the family.

So far, we're in good, solid drawing room territory, right?  But right from the beginning, we kick it up a notch past where Austen would go--Delphie's cousins, believing her to be the imposter, nonetheless solicit her help is convincing her dying great-uncle (a misogynistic old crank who likes to rewrite his will on a whim) that her cousin, Gareth Penistone, is married and worthy of inheritance.

(Let's pause here for a moment to marvel at a more innocent time (apparently 1979) when an author could name her main character Penistone and (presumably) assume you would pronounce it Penny-stone instead of Penis-tone.)

It's more complicated than this--far more complicated--but it makes perfect sense when you're reading it, so I'm not going to bother trying to explain it now. But we'll compact this review by saying that what Jane Austen would have considered a thrilling and possibly lurid tale of secret marriages and impostors devolves into gunplay, illegitimate children, and accusations of poisoning.  Several characters hire coaches and race to beat each other to Kent in hopes of securing an inheritance.  And, in traditional British fashion, a man is struck dead by a startling piece of information. 

In the end, this book was to a Jane Austen novel what the movie The Firm was to A Few Good Men.  Yeah, Tom Cruise was a lawyer trying to solve a mystery in both of them, but in one there was a whole lot more running.  And maybe I liked the better-written one better, but the action was pretty delicious and fun.  

Maybe that's not a great comparison; I like Joan Aiken way better than John Grisham.

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