Book Review: My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park by Cindy Jones
Finding a book for the Reading Challenge category “a book with bad reviews” was easier than I thought. I stumbled upon a perfectly pristine copy of My Jane Austen Summer at a used bookstore for $5. Since I’ve had some luck with chick-lit that I acquire in an impulsive fashion, I decided to not check any ratings on Goodreads until I got home. When I did see the terrible reviews, I kept the book because I had just started this Reading Challenge and figured I had at least one category ticked off.
I was not wrong.
This book is bad. I didn’t like any of the characters. As a result, I didn’t care what happened to any of them. And not much really happened any way. My motivation to finish this book was merely to check it off my list.
First, the book opens with a two-page synopsis of Mansfield Park. This decision rubs me the wrong way because it implies that this book’s plotting is so intertwined with Jane Austen’s story that if I have not read Mansfield Park, then I may miss some sub-text. This story is not complex and any details about the plot of Mansfield Park that the author thought a reader must know could have been sprinkled through the writing of her modern adaptation.
The protagonist, Lily Berry, is an average bore. At the beginning of the story, she’s pining for Martin, a man with the poor taste to own a blue denim sofa. She drives through his neighborhood repeatedly. In her last conversation with him, he catches her stalking his house. One of his lines is “‘If you can’t stay away, you need to get help.’ He enunciated as if I were dense.”
Hello Lily, you are dense!
She lost her boyfriend. She lost her job in human resources. She lost her mom and her father is remarrying. She is a desperate character. Desperate enough to take up her friend Vera on her offer to work at Literature Live, a literary festival in England where the actors present scenes from Jane Austen novels.
Vera owns a local bookstore in Texas and helps run Literature Live during the summers. Vera assures Lily that she’s ready for this adventure.
Lily sells her possessions and heads to England. One of her first impressions with the people from Literature Live is to demonstrate her density. An actor comments that she thought the meeting was set for half eight. Lily stupidly replies, “My schedule said eight-thirty.”
For an author to invoke Jane Austen as Cindy Jones does and then write such an incredibly stupid and insipid character as this heroine just infuriates me. Lily is not worthy of being compared to an Austen protagonist. Not even Fanny Price. Fanny may be timid and a goody-two-shoes, but she's not dumb.
Just when I thought the character line-up and basic story line couldn’t get worse, Jones introduces My Jane Austen. As in My Jane Austen, an imaginary ghost of Austen created by Lily's subconscious. My Jane Austen is with Lily at all times. Often looking through date books and notes and being incredibly judgmental about Lily’s actions and remarks.
I found this gimmick annoying until the scene where Lily actually explains her conjuring of My Jane Austen to her love interest, who is writing a vampire novel because that genre blends right into Regency England. Lily tells him that “her strongest representation for me is Patron Saint of Thoughtful Women.”
And where would a thoughtful woman be in this novel? I didn’t see any.
Then there’s the scene where Lily speaks what My Jane Austen is thinking. These were the only words that Lily utters that I ever found slightly compelling. While this Jane channeling creates an awkward social situation, there’s no repercussion. As far as the story is concerned, the scene could be cut and nothing about the plot would be any different.
Jones tries to inject a family sub-plot. Lily communicates with her sister Karen by email. Karen has learned several upsetting family secrets in the weeks leading up to their father’s second wedding. I didn’t care. Nothing about this family dynamic is interesting and there’s certainly no important commentary on modern family life. The secrets and scandal are entirely too specific to make any kind of meaningful connection.
Overall, little occurs in this novel. Certainly nothing of consequence happens. The resolution tries to take a stand for smart independent women, but Lily is not an example of that character. Sure, she’s happier than she was at the start of the novel, but stupid and insipid people can be just delusional enough to think they’re happy.