Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gotham Gal Review: Writing Jane Austen

Critically acclaimed and award-winning but hardly bestselling author Georgina Jackson can't get past the first chapter of her second book. When she receives an urgent email from her agent, Georgina is certain it's bad news. Shockingly, she's offered a commission to complete a newly discovered unfinished manuscript. Skeptical at first about her ability to complete the manuscript, Georgina is horrified to learn that the author in question is Jane Austen.

Torn between pushing through or fleeing home to America, Georgina relies on the support of her banker-turned-science-student roommate, Henry, and his quirky sister Maud, a serious Janeite.  With a sudden financial crisis looming, the only way Georgina can get by is to sign the hugely lucrative contract and finish the book.

This is the premise for Elizabeth Aston's new novel WRITING JANE AUSTEN. I really wanted to love this book, I'm a huge Jane Austen fan, and it's set in England, so it should have been a win-win situation for me. Unfortunately, I found myself bored at times, and skimming the novel rather than reading it. The biggest problem for me was the heroine Georgina. I found her incredibly annoying and childish at times. Instead of facing the problems, she runs away first to Oxford and then from Bath. She ignores emails from her agent and from the Professor who is supposed to be helping her write the book, instead of sitting down and listening. Although I understood her snobbish, dismissive attitude towards Jane Austen, it bugged me that it took until page 140 before she even read the novels. Of course, once she did, she fell completely in love with Jane Austen. But then the real problems start, we are treated to endless pages of her procrastination, and self-doubt.  After awhile, instead of having me sympathize with a fellow writer, I found her whinging a complete turnoff.

Aston sets up believable roadblocks and obstacles. Georgina's funding gets cut off from her University fellowship and her father can't help her because he's going through his 5th divorce, which leads her to finally signing the contract to write the book. She also ends up with the beginnings of karpal tunnel syndrome from typing too much, which leads to some amusing scenes with her trying to type with one hand, and then buying voice recognition software.

Another problem is there is a lot of telling and not showing. It would have helped if Aston has included excerpts from THE SADNESS OF JANE SILVERSMITH, the book that Georgina has been working on, writing 48 versions of the same chapter. That's funny, and it would have been nice to have a few snippets from a couple of the chapters as well as some tidbits from her first novel MAGDALENE CRIB, which was critically acclaimed but didn't sell. The reader is treated to reviewer which gives a plot summary of a novel more depressing than anything Thomas Hardy wrote. Since LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP is supposed to be a lost Jane Austen fragment, I would have liked to have gotten more than just a plot summary of the fragment, and also later on when Georgina writes the first draft and then revises it. I felt that this was a real weakness.

There are two minor subplots. Henry's sister Maud runs away from her boarding school, and he spents endless pages trying to find her a new one. Also, his other lodger Anna, ends up falling for his cousin Charles, which is disapproved off by his aunt Pamela, shades of Pride and Prejudice. There are other echoes of Austen in the novel, Henry's last name is Lefroy which is the name of Tom Lefroy, the man that some people feel was Austen's lost love. Some of the most amsing scenes occur when Georgina flees to Bath which Aston depicts as sort of a Jane Austen themepark. Her friend Bel even owns a shop called Darcy. It's also somewhat amusing to hear other characters she comes across diss Jane Austen, which seems to bolster Georgina's viewpoint that Austen is just a romance novelist until she actually reads the books.  It was nice to see Georgina's snobbery crumble.

Aston does get into a writer's head and the problems of procrastination, those sections felt all too real, and the ways that we authors deal with it. However, the love story between Henry and Georgina felt tacked on. I never once believed that she was falling in love with Henry, I just didn't feel it, although he is wonderfully supportive during the story. Her great realization felt false. Maud however is a delightful character, and is rightly described as 14 going on 30. She was a breath of fresh air in the story whenever it got bogged down with Georgina's whinging.

Verdict: 3 Apples, This book will no doubt please die-hard Austen fans but I found the heroine sorely lacking and there was too much telling and not enough showing.

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