REVIEW of Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Recently, one of the book blogs that I frequent recommended Austenland, by Shannon Hale. I’m trying to be more eclectic with my reading this year (i.e. emancipating myself from reading exclusively historical fiction) and so I decided to take the plunge and read *gasp* a contemporary novel, one that could even be classified as “chick lit.”

Jane Hayes has an obsession with Mr. Darcy, to be specific, the Colin Firth BBC version of Mr. Darcy. It’s an obsession that keeps her from finding the right man in real life, despite the thirteen-or-so boyfriends she’s had over the years. Her Great-Aunt Carolyn finds out about Jane’s guilty secret and, when she dies, leaves Jane a very unusual bequest in her will. Jane receives a non-refundable, all-expenses-paid, three week trip to Pembrook Park, a sort of theme park in England designed to give visitors the Jane Austen experience. Determined to “get over” Mr. Darcy and move on with her life, Jane decides to accept Great-Aunt Carolyn’s gift and go to Pembrook Park as part of her therapy. What she discovers is a unique establishment where middle aged women pay extravagant sums of money to be courted by Regency gentlemen (played by actors with English accents and sideburns).

Taking on the  pseudonym Miss Erstwhile, Jane becomes acquainted with the entire cast in residence: Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the proprietress who demands that Jane turn over every bit of technology and adopt Regency garb; Miss Charming, the gauche and buxom American determined to get her money’s worth out of this vacation; Miss Heartwright, the sweet and ideal guest who is returning for her fourth season at Pembrook Park; George East, Colonel Anderson, and Mr. Nobley, the three actors paid to vie for the female guests’ attention; and Martin, the tall, attractive gardener, who has as much trouble staying in character as Jane does. By the end of her three weeks in Austenland, Jane decides that she would rather have a real romance than a score of fake Mr. Darcys. But as it turns out, Pembrook Park may hold a real Mr. Darcy that Jane’s just too blind to recognize.

The book is a humorous look at our generation’s obsession with everything Austen. Those familiar with all of Austen’s works will enjoy the allusions to various characters and scenes from the novels. I appreciated the fact that this book, although a romance, was quite clean and didn’t devolve into the smut that characterizes most romance novels. It was a fun and fluffy read without a whole lot of substance–but sometimes, cotton candy is just what you want for a snack.

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