Random Reads: Austenland

I just happened to read a short promotion for Austenland by Shannon Hale this past week, so when I saw it at the thrift store, I snatched it up. It looked like a light, fun, easy read - and it was. But it could have been more. It was almost more.

Austenland is about 30-something Jane, who is unlucky in love and retreats into Austen fantasy, Pride and Prejudice being her favorite, to escape. A wealthy aunt dies and leaves her the gift of a three-week vacation at Pembrook Park, an Austen role-playing resort. Hale adeptly captures the wide range of emotions that Jane, and probably any sane woman, would have during this type of get-away. Jane bounces back and forth between being elated and excited to live out her fantasy, to being embarrassed at the whole charade, to being annoyed at the inconveniences of 19th century living, to the realization that maybe living in reality is preferable to living in fantasy, after all. Except, come to find out, reality never had a chance in this novel.

*Spoiler alert* At the beginning of each chapter, we are treated to vignettes of Jane's past boyfriends which quickly leads to the revelation that Jane, not luck, not the men themselves, is the biggest hindrance to finding "the one". In fact, many of her so-called boyfriends were never even more than flirtations. The one guy that could have really been something was dumped because he snorted when he laughed. Jane begins to realize that she's had plenty of real chances. Turns out, she wasn't looking for real, she wanted a fantasy, and fantasy can be harder to come by than fiction. When she finds herself drawn to the one man at Pembrook who is willing to be real with her, to drop his character, we feel like she's making progress. When she refuses the proposal of her very own Darcy figure, Mr. Nobly, we think that she's got it under control, at last. We start to feel like maybe Jane is maturing, that maybe she's heading into something real, that maybe there's something more to this easy-reading chick lit novel.

Then it all falls flat.

Both the gardener and Nobly follow Jane to the airport, professing true love to her. She rejects them both. The gardener realizes the gig is up, but Nobly jumps on the plane and further pleads his case. Despite the fact that they've only known each other for three weeks, and that they were both playing roles, she decides he's the real deal. They make out for the entire flight and "order in" later that night, back at her apartment. They live happily ever after. The End.

I know.

In my opinion, the novel could have stayed lighthearted while promoting better values by having Nobly chase Jane down and exchange email addresses. Maybe he could have told her he had an upcoming job in New York and he wished to meet up with her while he was in town? Perhaps he could have persuaded her to stay an extra day in town so they could get together and get to know each other? Sometimes fiction is more exciting when there's at least a dash of reality mixed in.

In the end, this novel was a disappointment because it was so close to really being something of substance, but just couldn't quite deliver. Hale had the opportunity to make a great point about unrealistic expectations holding us back from living a real, full, life, but instead decided to promote the idea that blithely hopping from one romance to another can lead to happiness. If you just keep dreaming, you're bound to fall into something real eventually, right? Well, maybe it does work that way for some, but you'll have to be content to kiss a lot of frogs and deal with a lot of disappointed expectations in the meantime.

I would have liked this book better if it had been content to stay in the breezy arena of chick lit or if it had fully matured into something more. But it got stuck somewhere in the middle and so doesn't really satisfy either way.


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