Books

Book 567: Mary B – Katherine Chen

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this one. I’m always open for a bit of Austen fan-fiction so when someone from the publisher reached out to me about this one I figured why not?*

I’m not one of those who is obsessed with any particular character of Jane Austen’s like the author. I love the broad strokes of her stories and the general caricatures and stereotypes she works in across all her work. So when the fan-fiction gets super specific, like this one, I’m never quite sure what will come out of it. Will I enjoy this authors take on the character? Will they stay true to not only Austen’s works but the generally accepted views of the character? Will it be enjoyable and readable?

I’m glad to say that this one was most definitely readable and even enjoyable, for the most part. I even enjoyed most of Chen’s take on Mary Bennet, but I couldn’t help but think this one strayed too far from my reading of Austen and what feels like the majority of people’s readings of many characters outside of Austen.

Chen’s writing was beautiful and easy to read, unlike many other writers in the Austen universe she chose not to mimic the style of the times and in doing so freed herself of quite a bit of the mistakes many of them make. The book and Chen’s voice strengthened as she moved past the action of Pride and Prejudice, and yet that’s when I felt she detoured away from the originals in a way that didn’t work for me, but more on that later.

I had a few problems with the retelling portion because there were major events that were left out or glossed over. I have to assume this is a result of space/time, but the omission felt very odd. In particular I’m referring to Lydia’s “elopement” with Wickham. The fact that this was only mentioned in passing after the fact seemed very odd to me. Mrs. Bennet’s reactions to even the smallest thing were observed by all of her daughters and the staff and one can only imagine her reaction to something this scandalous and to have no mention of it (unless I missed it which I very well could have) is very odd.

The other piece I had a problem with was Mary’s interaction with Mr. Darcy at one of the balls, I believe the first. There is NO way this would happen in my world and in most people’s Austen worlds. He’s very clear that he will not and does not talk to strangers. Part of this is the build up of 200 years of iconic untouchable Mr. Darcy and the canon of the original Austen, but part of this is I think written directly in the text. At the point this happens in Mary B Darcy has already insulted Elizabeth, he has already made it known that he will only dance with the women he came with and has spent the majority of the time even though there are fewer women than men standing on the sidelines.

Now on to the post-Pride and Prejudice part of the book. This part I actually appreciated more than I thought I would. I’m not enthused over the character turns she gave to the primary characters from the original work, but she wrote what she did well. I think Chen would’ve been better served having created new characters or searching Austen’s other works for throwaway characters.

Again, this comes down to personal opinion and what Austen’s characters do in my continuation in my head, but there’s no way Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t happy. I won’t go into more than that, but it felt too forced. It felt as if too much modern thought/experience was being forced into a marriage that came from overcoming pride and prejudice (see what I did there) to build a mostly perfect union. I also had an issue with Chen’s re-use of almost exact quotes from the original work in different context:

“‘No?’ he repeated, almost in disbelief. ‘Then you acknowledge by your refusal that there is something between you…or that there could be something between you.

‘Oh, but how could there be, Mr. Darcy?’ I asked, even as my voice quavered. I had never stood up to him this way before. ‘As you put so well, it is impossible that anything of the kind should happen to one such as myself.‘” (Chapter 21)

Hello Lady Catherine de Bourgh, your nephew is channeling you in a most unseemly manner when he bucked everything you thought to marry the woman he loved.

However, where the modern thoughts and experience didn’t work on Darcy and Elizabeth, I think they most definitely worked on Mary. I loved that Chen, like others before her, merged Austen with one of her characters. In Mary becoming a published author with independent means she is able to take on a life that Austen could never dream of.

I also didn’t mind Chen making Mary a more modern woman when it came to sex and relations with men. It’s already been shown historically that pre-marital sex was rampant during this time period. Sure it wasn’t usually the landed gentry that were flouncing about, but it did happen. I wasn’t happy with how the character Mary connects with on this level, because even though his background could make him such a man there was no indication in the novels (that I remember) that he wasn’t perfectly respectable.

UGH – I feel like I’ve ragged on about this book in such a bad light when I really did enjoy most of it. I guess because I love Austen as much as I do and read as much fan-fiction as I do that I’m more apt to focus on the things that jar me out of my comfort zone. But honestly, Chen wrote a wonderful book that if removed from Austen I believe could stand on it’s own with minimal adjustments to provide back story that isn’t as iconic. Take this passage for example,

“Perhaps this is why I prefer reading to any other activity. When one reads, one is forced to look down at the words, and the imperfections of the face become less noticeable due to the angle of one’s head. More so, the act of reading is a silent rebellion. To read in the presence of company is a most convenient excuse for not partaking in conversation. The book is a better tool than the piano in this regard. If you play and sing, then visitors are expected to listen, to applaud, and to compliment you on your so-called accomplishments. But if you are sitting behind your sisters and occupied with a book, it is as if to say to the guest, ‘I would rather spend time with the litigious husbands, gamblers, and spendthrifts of this novel than with you, dear sir, even if you had no interest in wooing me in the first place.” (Chapter 1)

There’s something beautiful about this and daring because of the setting and character who says this. I think she also does a wonderful job encapsulating Austen’s love, satirical use, and defense of the novel as an art form.

Recommendation: This sounds a lot worse than it is. I really appreciated Chen’s view of the characters even if I don’t agree with them. I think she’s a writer on the edge of something, but what it is I don’t know. I would love to see her write something non-Austen based because she developed great character that had depth and even got me to laugh a few times.

*I received a copy of Mary B from the publisher via NetGalley in return for my honest opinion. No goods or money were exchanged.

Opening Line: “A child does not grow up with the knowledge that she is plain or dull or a complete simpleton until the accident of some event should reveal these unfortunate truths.”

Closing Line: “She couldn’t know then the strength of her own wings: how high she’d sour, how marvelous her many flights and how diminished in size and importance the people and places she left behind would eventually become to her as she dared the brilliance of the sun.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)

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4 thoughts on “Book 567: Mary B – Katherine Chen”

    1. I really was on the fence – like her writing style is great and I would happily read something else by her because it didn’t horrify me. What got me though was going against what feels like essential character traits of iconic characters that have been adapted dozens of times and still have those traits.

      Liked by 1 person

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