Desert Isle Keeper
The Austen Playbook
The Austen Playbook, the fourth in Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities series, is one of the most eagerly anticipated new releases of 2019 – and I’m here to tell you your patience will most definitely be rewarded when it comes out. It’s got all Ms. Parker’s trademarks; the two principals are wonderfully appealing, the secondary cast is well-drawn, the dialogue is snappy – and most importantly, it’s got the depth, emotional resonance and soul-deep connection between the leads she’s so good at creating (and which I felt was missing in the previous book).
Frederica – Freddy – Carlton is the youngest member of an acting dynasty whose members have been treading the boards in the West End for the last four hundred years. She’s been acting since she was a child, and although she made her name performing in a string of popular comedies and musicals, she’s now turned her hand to more serious pieces at the urging of her manager – who also happens to be her father Rupert, whose acting career came to an end following an accident years earlier. But Freddy’s heart isn’t really in the meaty, dramatic roles she’s being urged to undertake. Her real love is for lighter theatre – musicals, rom-coms, physical comedy – and she knows that’s where her real talent lies, in performing pieces that leave the audiences feeling better at the end of the evening than they did at the beginning. Yet although she recognises that Rupert is living vicariously through her, she can’t bring herself to disappoint him by refusing to go along with his plans for her. He’s pushing her to audition for the leading role in The Velvet Room, the masterpiece that catapulted her grandmother Henrietta into the history books as both actress and playwright – and in Freddy’s opinion, another piece of weepy philosophical introspection that just isn’t her cup of tea.
The fact that Freddy isn’t suited to the heavier roles hasn’t escaped the extremely perceptive – and extremely annoying – theatre critic, James Ford-Griffin, Grumpiest TV presenter in the UK. And the witty wanker behind the scathing theatre reviews in the Westminster Post. She’s having a drink with friends after a rather disastrous performance when she overhears him talking to someone in the next booth in the pub, uncomfortably aware that his cutting remarks are right on the nose:
“For some reason, she’s pursuing a determined line in high-brow dramas, when she’d clearly rather be stamping about in puddles in Singin’ in the Rain.”
It’s completely unnerving that this man, whom she doesn’t know, has seen through her façade, and more unnerving still is the way her stomach suddenly feels like it’s full of butterflies when she ends up standing next to him at the bar. Sure, he’s good-looking, but sadly, behind those compelling dark eyes, that platinum blond hair and majestic nose lurks a frosty demeanour and all the personality of an iceberg.
Griff has spent pretty much his entire adult life trying to rein in his spendthrift parents while they indulge their flights of fancy with no thought to their responsibilities. The family home at Highbrook in Surrey is heavily mortgaged, and Griff is desperately trying to find ways to pay off the pile of debt as well as to make the estate viable for at least the next few years. He is currently seeking financing for a film about the life of Henrietta Carlton, who wrote The Velvet Room at Highbrook while in the throes of a passionate affair with his grandfather, but that’s not progressing well at the moment thanks to Rupert Carlton’s interference. Griff’s younger brother, Charlie – who Griff sees as not much more responsible than their parents – has come up with a scheme which might make them some money in the short-term; they’ll rent out the Henry Theatre (built in the grounds by Sir George Ford as a gift for Henrietta) to the company producing The Austen Playbook, a live TV event based on an extremely popular game featuring characters from Jane Austen’s novels. Griff isn’t best pleased at the idea, but at least the TV company will pay for the necessary renovations to the theatre and the income will give him a bit of breathing space while he continues to seek funding for the film.
With Freddy cast as Lydia Bennett, she and Griff are thrown into each other’s orbit once again, and the spark of attraction that had leapt between them that night months ago in the pub flares to life again. Their romance develops quickly – something they both acknowledge – but the author does such a great job of creating a genuinely strong emotional connection between them and showing the ways in which they come to understand each other, that I never felt as though things were moving too fast. They’re well-rounded, complex characters who are like chalk and cheese in many ways; Freddy is generally outgoing, vibrant and chatty where Griff is more reticent and serious, but when it comes to the really important things between them, they’re very much on the same wavelength. I loved Freddy’s open-heartedness and was impressed by the way she’s so positive about falling for Griff:
“If I end up getting hurt, I would still never regret falling for him. I’m not going to hold back on investing in him just because there are no guarantees in life.”
– because it’s such a contrast to so many characters in romances who insist on holding back or walling off their emotions because they fear being hurt.
Griff is a swoonworthy hero who turns out to be perfect boyfriend material without being given a complete personality transplant. He’s a truly decent guy who’s big enough to own it when he screws up, and while his observations may often be critical, they’re also often true – even Freddy has to admit to herself that some of his criticisms have actually been helpful. Freddy learns to see through to the real Griff, not an iceberg at all, but a man who cares deeply about doing the best for those he loves, and she comes to appreciate his good qualities as she comes to understand him better. I especially enjoyed the support they offer each other at difficult moments; that’s not to say everything is plain sailing for them, but there’s no Big Mis because these two talk to each other.
There’s an intriguing plotline running alongside the romance, which is going to test Freddy and Griff’s loyalty to their families and each other when, during the course of some background research for the film, Freddy makes a surprising and potentially damaging discovery which could destroy reputations and careers. It really held my interest and is fully integral to the story rather than being something just tacked on to provide some conflict in the romance.
The familial relationships – Freddy and her TV presenter sister, Griff and his charming and more laid-back brother – are wonderfully realised, and as in all the London Celebrities books, there’s a fabulously drawn secondary cast, consisting mostly of a disparate group of actors (including the viperous Sadie Frost, whom we’ve met in previous books) who, just as in real life, get along and hate each other’s guts to varying degrees. Tempers fray and egos clash as the performance gets nearer, and we’re also treated to what I suspect is the set up for the next book, as we watch Freddy’s sister and her biggest rival (who happens to be Griff’s best mate) rip each other to shreds with verbal barbs and looks that could kill at ten paces.
Funny, sexy, warm and smart, The Austen Playbook is a thoroughly entertaining read that kept me glued from first page to last, and I’m confidently predicting its appearance on my Best Books of 2019 list. It’s just that good.