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Shannon Hale writes funny, sharp YA books so Midnight in Austenland held real promise of being entertaining. It was a trip. A key to this weird stumble down the rabbit hole is in the novels Hale cites as part of her research: Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Jane Eyre, a lot of Agatha Christie and Northhanger Abbey. Toss in a little chicklit, too, I’m guessing, for good measure. But not too much. Hers isn’t a ditzy, designer-label heroine–just a confused one. When Charlotte Kinder, the divorced mother of two barely adolescent kids, decides to thaw her frozen heart on a Jane Austen re-enactment vacation she expects pre-scripted nineteenth-century romance, not bloody murder. But bloody–actually bloodless–murder is what she gets.
Charlotte can’t get past the calculating, cheating, cold fish who replaced her non-theatening husband and then moved out to marry his girlfriend, Justice. That’s a name? Even hippies didn’t name their kids Justice–but it may signify the comeuppance James Kinder is due, if only Charlotte will open her eyes and see him for who he really is. She has some trouble with that (see name: Kinder) so off to England and an estate called Pembroke Park and a brooding actor named Mallery who is assigned to court her in the Austen manner and propose at a fancy ball on her last night in the costume drama. Living in a Jane Austen novel should take her mind off things.
From the beginning, the story lurches a bit immodestly from the corsets and crumpets world Charlotte has entered to random recollections from her past that conveniently explain her present neuroses. You have to pay attention–but it’s okay because there are some funny lines and a certain vertigo involved in vacationers adopting Regency personas. The kids, when Charlotte slips off to a nearby inn to check in with them by cell phone, are adjusting too well to vacation with dad and the new step-mom, who sounds like a clueless jerk on the phone. The parlour game of murder awakens Charlotte’s childhood fears of the dark and gives her something to really be afraid of. Despite her inadvertant creation of a wildly successful online gardening and landscape architecture business, Charlotte has about as much self-confidence as a limp rag–her necessary character arc is pretty obvious. The girl has issues but so does everyone else in the game.
Almost immediately, she is convinced there has been a real murder and sets out to uncover proof, endangering herself–or maybe just intensifying the trappings of the theater that surrounds her. Did she see a dead hand in a secret room, or was it a clue? Is someone from the household missing and are those tire tracks going from the house to a pond in the woods? Cars are not allowed anywhere near the estate and stables, so whose tire tracks might those be? How does the celebrity-in-disguise maintain such a perfect illusion of a consumption victim, complete with gray pallor, episodes of shaking and sweating and frequent retirements to her room? Are Mallery’s fervent protestations of love part of the script or is he for real? Why does her “brother,” another of the actors, always seem to have her back? Who set the fire that destroyed a charming cottage at the edge of the property?
Charlotte spends half her time hunting murderers and the other half hunting for her authentic self. She is desperate to fall in love–just for two weeks–but she doubts everything. After a while, you do, too. When are these people speaking as themselves? Ever? Never? Right up to the end I expected to have the curtain pulled back and the pupptmasters revealed. Midnight in Austenland is crazier than that, though. The real stuff is as fantastical as anything Austen would have dreamed up–more, in fact, as Austen made high art of the most ordinary quotidian and Hale treats the most improbable events as commonplace.
It was an amusing read, witty in spots, consistently superficial, but madcap as a comedy of manners, claustrophobic as a country cozy, not convincingly gothic, and wrapped up expertly in the final chapter and the helpful epilogue. It’s not The Princess Academy but a kind of grown-up fairytale with a sort of a princess who survives long enough to do the happily-ever-after bit at the end.
Midnight in Austenland: A Novel Shannon Hale | Bloomsbury USA 2012