Austenland by Shannon Hale
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a work of chick lit must be in want of a noose.
Yet somehow, I found myself checking this frothy novel out of the library and reading it in a day. Hey, it's a very short book, and besides, I loved Mr. Bennett in Pride & Prejudice.
Jane is a Manhattan singleton in her early 30s who keeps the BBC's Pride & Prejudice, starring perennial singleton crush Colin Firth, hidden in her apartment. One afternoon Jane receives a visit from a wealthy, elderly aunt who spots the DVDs, and immediately infers that Jane is a pathetic sap with unrealistic expectations about finding 19th century love in 21st century New York.
Then Aunt Carolyn dies, and leaves Jane a 3-week, all expenses paid vacation to Austenland, a Regency estate where guests dress in period clothing, swoon, play whist, and meet handsome landed gentry, played by actors. Jane hopes she can use the trip to separate her own romantic ideals from reality, and put the Mr. Darcy daydreams behind her once and for all.
The estate and its guests are weird and sad, and at first, Jane is keenly aware of this. However, she's read her Gothic romances, even Northanger Abbey, and finds she's exceptionally good at playing her role. She minces, she bats her eyes, she banters wittily, all the while reminding herself that none of it is real. Until she meets an unsuitable gardener, and a sullen, darkly handsome man who is, of course, infuriating.
The first 20 pages of the book are almost unreadable, but once the improbable set-up is out of the way, Austenland becomes rather charming, with fun period details and spirited dialogue. However, the characters are a little flat and underdeveloped, even our protagonist, whose ideas about romantic love seem more rooted in the 7th grade than the 19th century.
Still, it's fun, and enough off the beaten path of standard chick lit tropes that it doesn't feel tired. If you liked Bridget Jones's Diary, you'll get a kick out of this.*
* A note on the original singleton, Ms. Jones. I tried to read Bridget Jones's Diary when I was about 20, and I practically threw it across the room. Then, I tried it again a few years later, and thought it was adorable. I'm still not sure if this means that I became a bad feminist after college, or if I just lightened up a little bit.