Austenland is an intriguing concept that is carried of rather well. From a high level, it involves a thirty-something single woman named Jane off for 3 weeks of "Live Action Role Play" (LARP) in a Regency House populated with servants, gentlemen and other women searching for Victorian style romance. I expected plenty of sappy moments and coming away with a sugar headache. Instead, I found a thoughtful and fun (albeit cheesy at times) romance that tries to get to the heart of romance while exploring unrealistic expectations and the joys and pains of obsessions.
Starting out the novel, I was worried that Jane would quickly become a stereotypical archetype...the 'unlucky in love' woman who obsesses over Pride & Prejudice (and other similar books), spurns men as vile and unromantic, and sets herself expectations that can never be achieved. By the end of the book, many of those traits were in fact proven out. However, Jane did progress through the novel and explored her own psychology to determine which of those characteristics were realistic and which should be abandoned.
Her path to discovery was humorous at times, frustrating at others, but in the end felt believable. I really found myself getting to understand and sympathize with Jane while at the same time wanting to shout at her that she was an idiot.
I absolutely loved the prefaces to many of the chapters in the book...many of the chapters began with a short description of each of Jane's "boyfriends" (of which I think she had 15). Most were a few paragraphs...one was just a sentence. Each was very insightful into her character and each was rather humorous...the kind of humor that is funny because you can see the reality behind the pathetic occurrence. As an example, one of these "boyfriend" descriptions tells about how she first saw the boy in class and they shared a glance and then, because he was too shy, she asked him out...to which he responded, "sure...and what was your name"....which promptly ended their "relationship".
As for the other characters, I felt that they were well portrayed, but I had some trouble (as did Jane) trying to sort out the behavior of the actors versus those of the person behind the character. I really felt Hale did a good job of keeping the true person at a distance while exposing glimpses of reality. The gardener was an interesting character who felt a little flat and, while I was surprised what happened with him, I was glad the way his story ended. I thought Mr. Nobley and the other gentlemen on the estate were well portrayed as proper 19th century gentlemen, but I would have liked to have seen more "behind-the-scenes" moments with them. We get one VERY brief scene where one of the characters is smoking behind a bush and talks about "getting back to work." I would like to have seen moments like that elaborated on a bit more.
The writing and the plot flowed along very nicely and it was a very fun read. Even though I am a heterosexual male, I did enjoy the book and can recommend it. However, I can't recommend it to everyone. For example, most of my friends (both male and female) would likely laugh at the suggestion and never make it beyond the first chapter. Others would certainly eat it up. I think that in order to enjoy this, the reader must first have an appreciation, if not a love, of Victorian literature and particularly Victorian romances. Having at least a perception of the obsession around Pride and Prejudice may also help.
So, two scores.
- To those who don't like Victorian romances - 1 star
- To those who enjoy Victorian lit, romances, or "girlie" books - 3.5 stars