The great part about The Austen Project, is I can read them in any order I want! Just like Austen’s original books 😀 I decided to read this one as we just read the original Northanger Abbey for Jane Austen Book Club and I loved it. The not so great part is reading this one made me wonder if I would have enjoyed Austen when she was originally published. I say this not as a commentary on the writer, whose skills were amazing and the ending had me in hysterics on the T, but as a commentary on holding up a mirror to young adult society today. The summary of the novel (Amazon Affiliate link), might not have made me read this if I wasn’t aware of the original, but McDermid drew me in pretty quickly.
The whole premise of the project is around the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s novels contemporary authors are retelling her stories in the modern age. We’ve all seen modern adaptations of classics like “Clueless” (Emma) and “10 Things I Hate About You” (Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew), but this is more along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Boooo!) or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (YAY!!!!) in that the story is verbatim with minor changes. In this case it’s brought into the 21st century and takes place in Edinburgh instead of Bath.
I was sold on the concept from the beginning, but this is the first I’ve read and I wasn’t sure how it would work. Needless to say, McDermid drew me in when she introduced Henry Tilney and had this to say after I tweeted it:
I’m not sure if it was his trousers that got me, but it was definitely her descriptions of all the characters that kept me going:
About the protagonist, Cat Morland:
“But that evening in the Botanics, she luxuriated in sharing an intense conversation about the novels she inhabited in her imagination. this was entirely a novelty for Cat, since she was the only member of her family who set any store by fiction. Their views baffled her; fiction seemed to Cat to be the highest form of the writer’s art, depending as it did on the resourceful application of creativity and the necessity of direct communication with the reader.” (48)
About the villainous Johnny Thorpe:
“Her companion was all brag and bluster, exaggeration and embellishment, hyperbole and histrionics. Nothing in Cat’s life had prepared her for John Thorpe. her own family were direct and matter-of-fact to the point of dullness. Even the Allens, who moved in relatively exalted circles, never boasted about their connections or inflated their own worth at the expense of others. But John was a man who never owned a mistake, whose every anecdote showed him in a glowing light, whose skills and abilities were second to none. Cat was certain she was supposed to marvel that he had deigned to honour her with his presence.” (91)
About the prince in nerdy armor, Henry Tilney:
“He’s so bloody pedantic, he’s always on my case about the way I use language. Father’s got an excuse, he’s from a different generation, but Henry’s just a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad.” (148)
About the eldest, villainous, Tilney:
“Just then, Freddie planted himself in the fourth chair at their table. There was something dangerous in his expression, as if he was only moments away from losing the veneer of civilization. Cat thought a lot of girls would find that darkness exciting, but it didn’t set her pulse racing.” (173)
The storyline was the same, but what really bothered me as I said above was the holding the mirror up to today’s society. I guess when reading the original works it’s easy to forget how young the characters are, but when reading this modern retelling it was shocking how vapid, self-involved and social media obsessed younger people are. I was proud to say I understood all of the text language and the ridiculous abbreviations of words, but at the same time when the more vapid characters appeared I immediately thought I’m not sure I can read this. I also thought it was great how McDermid brought other modern tropes into the book like selfies, heteroflexibility and student loans.
What a difference 200 years makes in the lives of teenagers, many things remain the same: worrying about the opposite sex, worrying about what your friends think, bullying, fashion, etc.; but many things have changed: how we communicate, how we interact with the opposite sex, family life, what can bar someone from marriage, etc.
It is the last, baring someone from marriage, that had me in stitches as I read the final few pages of the novel. The build up was excellent and I either missed all the signs or there were none, but what happened caught me completely off guard and it was a hilarious addition to this modern adaptation of a classic.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of the original you’ll appreciate the uniqueness McDermid brought to this book. If you’re not a fan of the original you might continue proselytizing how fluffy Austen’s works are. You could easily mistake this as just another ridiculous young adult/teen novel, but McDermid took Austen’s critique, cautioning and enjoyment, yes Austen enjoyed what she criticized, of the gothic novel and updated it to the paranormal romances of today! I can’t wait to read Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, which is already on my shelf, and I’ve preordered McCall Smith’s Emma, which will be even more fascinating as it’s Austen by a MAN!
Opening Line: “It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely resemble her books.”
Closing Line: “And that is as it should be, for as Catherine Morland found out to her cost, it is not the function of fiction to offer lessons in life.” (Whited out.)