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— Adam Gopnik

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August 19, 2018

Mary B

I know a lot of people grumble at them, but I'm always willing to try a Jane Austen continuation. I think it's because I know going in that they will never come close to the original, and for me the pleasure of reading them comes from curiosity about what the modern author will do with them. I've also decided that setting our Jane in modern times works much less well for me than rewriting or continuing or changing what happens to her characters in her time.  This new book is one of the latter, and it ticked both of those buttons for me. It was a little dark -- in the interest of realism, I think -- which takes away some of the pleasure that I've found in the original novels.  But I think it was well-written and well-done.

Mary B, as you'd probably guess, is Mary Bennet, and this novel takes place before, during, and after the events that unfold in Pride and Prejudice.  The basic plot is there, sometimes in passing:  Mr. Collins comes to visit, Jane falls in love with Bingley, Mr. Collins marries Charlotte Lucas, Lydia runs away with Wickham, and everyone marries everyone as before. But the point of view and the focus belong to Mary.  She is bookish, and plain, and unmusical, and censorious, and is treated badly, even cruelly, by her parents, her younger sisters, and others [it's part of the darkness of the book that some characters who come across as kind or sympathetic in the original book are shown less favorably here, even less consequential ones).  No one really believes that Mary will ever marry, except for Mary, and much of the book centers on her romances, both unrequited ones and unexpected ones. It's hard to say more without giving away what happens, but this retelling seems to be all about showing us what the characters, and what happened to them, were really like, and what their choices really meant.  It doesn't round out the characters as much as make them harder, or just different, and that made me enjoy reading it, and appreciate the novelist's skill, but still long for all the things that made me love the original novel, and the people that Jane Austen created.

Mary B, by Katherine J. Chen
Random House, 2018
Borrowed from the library


JoAnn said...

I've read several modern-day adaptations, but come up blank thinking about Austen continuations. How is that possible? Quite sure I was enjoy this... so would my oldest daughter.

Mae Travels said...

You make this sound interesting, but I'm not totally convinced that Jane Austen's characters need further explanation or exploration. My view of a wonderful adaptation of her insights-- the film "Clueless" (not the TV show). I guess I would just opt to reread one of the originals, before choosing a continuation. But I liked your review.

best... mae at

Vintage Reading said...

Yes, whenever I re-read P&P I feel so sorry for Mary when she wants to continue playing and basking in the limelight and her father tells her to stop because everyone has had enough! Austen brilliantly conveys her mortification. This books sound interesting, you do wonder what will happen to Mary.

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