Me and Mr. Darcy
Within the space of a month, two chick lit novels appeared in which a modern young woman with Mr. Darcy as her romantic ideal goes on a trip to England inspired by Jane Austen’s novels and is made to test her ideals. Having enjoyed Austenland by Shannon Hale, I turned to Me and Mr. Darcy with great interest, keen to see how Alexandra Potter’s concept varied from Shannon Hale’s. Happily I discovered that the latter book is both radically different from the first and equally entertaining to read.
The novel is told in the first person, mostly in the present tense, which works well with chick lit. The narrator is Emily Albright, 29-year-old manager of a small, old-fashioned New York bookstore. After a truly awful date with an altogether dreadful, ungentlemanly man, which only repeats the pattern of the past year, she despairs of ever finding a man she can like as much as Mr. Darcy, her romantic ideal since she was eleven. Her best friend Stella is aghast to find Emily in love with a man from a book and determines to drag her to Mexico to a 18-30 all-inclusive resort over the New Year holiday. When Emily tries to get out of it, she discovers a leaflet on her desk advertising a Jane Austen tour in England during the same period. She books online instantly and claims to Stella that she decided on the tour ages ago.
Upon arriving in England, Emily is inclined to think everything wonderful and romantic. There are a number of very funny scenes that highlight differences between English and American culture, mostly in the fields of language and food. The other participants of the tour are lovely, too, but they come, with one exception, from Emily’s parents’ generation. She is put out by that at first, but soon discovers to her great surprise that old age does not necessarily mean an interest in knitting patterns and grandchildren only. Instead, the women on the tour are delightfully multi-faceted even when they are just minor characters. My compliments to Alexandra Potter! Their stories and that of Stella form a heartwarming pattern of subplots.
The one other tour member under 40 is Spike Hargreaves, a journalist forced by his editor to cancel his holiday in Switzerland in order to investigate the fascination that Mr. Darcy has for modern women. Spike is upset about this, and consequently he is rude, ill-tempered, and grumpy. In many ways, he is the opposite of the established romance hero. When he is obnoxious, he is really obnoxious and not just charmingly arrogant and domineering. He doesn’t care about being ridiculous, and in contrast to many romance heroes, that is not a big step for him, but rather a natural state of being. When he puts his foot in, he acts truly nasty and hurtful. He is not physically perfect, does not work out, and dresses sloppily – again not in a charming manner. Alexandra Potter, who after all tells everything through Emily’s eyes, does an excellent job in showing how his faults at first annoy Emily terribly, while they become less important later on – but they do not go away.
At Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, still in the grip of jet lag, Emily has a very strange experience: She meets a man in Jane Austen’s living-room who wears old-fashioned clothes, has old-fashioned manners, and claims he is Mr. Darcy. Emily first thinks him a living-history museum actor, albeit an incredibly convicing one. To her great surprise, she meets him again in Winchester, while suffering from a hangover, and again in Bath, under the influence of a sleeping pill. Slowly she begins to believe that he is Mr. Darcy, the man of her dreams. Her meetings with him are romantic and exciting, but not always free of trouble, as Mr Darcy does not understand 21st century customs and several things Emily says or does upset him.
Mr. Darcy in this book stays true to what Jane Austen writes about him – okay, add the lake scene. He is brooding and a bit stiff and chivalrous, and his ideas of a romantic outing are in keeping with early 19th century ideas. And he is very much the Mr. Darcy of popular culture, with more than a dash of Colin Firth, although it is pointed out that he does not look like him. He is not my Mr. Darcy, however, who is shyer and more awkward. I think readers’ responses to this character will vary according to their conceptions of this Jane Austen character. In any case, he is plausibly developed, and his and Emily’s conversations are highly enjoyable to read.
A number of parallels between what happens to Emily and what happens in Pride and Prejudice occur, but there is not a contrived attempt at one-to-one equivalences. This works well, in my eyes, because plot developments don’t seem as forced as they do in some other Austen modernizations. In addition, Emily seems only a bit dim for not realizing earlier that there are parallels between her adventures and those of Elizabeth Bennet. She is indeed slow to recognize this, which is one of my small niggles about the book. The second one is that in the last pages too much that is already clear for the discerning reader is explained by the narrator. These explanations and interpretations are tedious and rob the ending some of its charm. One more thing should also be noted here: Readers should be aware that although the sensuality rating of this novel is subtle, the text contains some strong language.
Me and Mr. Darcy is not quite keeper material, being a bit too explicit as regards explanations at some points and a touch awkward at other times. It is, however, a very funny, highly enjoyable novel with a delightful hero and heroine, and a host of great minor characters, bound to give you a great time reading it.