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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

All hail Mr. Darcy! Or, Elizabeth Bennet. Or someone from Longbourn!

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Book Type: It's a Pride and Prejudice retelling!!!! Or is it???

Stereotype Alert: Not as bad as you'd think!

Cover Art: Looks like art.  Though I'm going to guess this is a servant from about... 20 years before our story takes place.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Mrs. Hill/John/Wickham

Character Score: 6 out of 10 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: Pride and Prejudice as told by the servants.  There's hardly any Darcy/Bingley in here at all!

X-Factor: The great Jane Austen- with a twist.

Stereotype Alert: Readers, I was quite afeared that this would be yet another Jane Austen rip-off/ "What happened after the story ended????" type novel.  Not so.  Not at all.

Cover Art: Not much to say about this cover.  It is clearly a housemaid.  So, yeah.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Poor Mrs. Hill!  She needs a lover- stat!  John is, to use the words of Forever Young Adult, a total MLD (Mysterious Loner Dude).  He's hot and has a mysterious past- all good things for a friend with benefits to have.  And Wickham.  Death to creepy, old Wickham- always.

Character Score: 6 out of 10 seems fair.  I might even go as far as a 7.  Baker has created a great voice for Sarah and just like with Austen, you fall in love with all of her main characters.  But there is surprisingly little of Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters.  Glimpses, yes, but the story is driven by those below-stairs.  

What's the Story?: Many, many authors have tried to capture the genius that is Jane Austen (and more specifically, the delight that came from the characters in Pride and Prejudice).  But Longbourn by Jo Baker isn’t an Austen rip-off.  It isn’t even a story that tries to answer the question “What happened after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy got married?”  Instead, Baker has told the story of the Bennet household from the point of view of a rather unlikely character: the Bennet’s housemaid, Sarah. 

Sarah (about Ms. Elizabeth Bennet’s age) has been with the family since she was a little girl.  She does everything that is expected of a housemaid including: soaking and scrubbing muddy petticoats, feeding the pigs, emptying chamber pots and washing the never-ending supply of dishes being used by a family of seven.  She does not complain. But she does wonder what it would be like to live a life where no one expected you to do anything and you could act on your own free-will. 

The joyous thing about this novel is that we see only glimpses of the Bennet family; a line of conversation here and there, but not much more.  The pages are filled with Sarah’s daily activities and those of the other staff: Mr. Hill and the housekeeper Mrs. Hill, the young housemaid Polly and a new hired man, James, who has a shadowy past.  There is little here of Jane’s pining for Bingley or Elizabeth’s annoyance with Darcy.  Sarah slowly sets off down a path towards her own romance but will she end up with the mysterious James or Mr. Bingley’s handsome and charming servant Ptomely? 

Baker takes us with Sarah on her journey from young lady to woman and we get to see just how much she longs for a world outside of service.  We see her set off with Elizabeth to Kent to visit the Collinses and her amazement at the metropolis that is London.  When she is given the opportunity to leave Longbourn and serve at Pemberly, will the grand house be the new responsibilities and distractions she needs?  Will she marry in order to get out of service?  Or will she go a direction all her own without the help of her benefactors and friends?  

X-Factor: The great Jane Austen- with a twist.

Seriously guys, I was kind of worried about reading this book.  I am not a fan of Austen retellings.  I thought this was just another author who was in lurve with Austen and was trying to write a book in order to express her feelings to the long-dead legend.  Not so.  Baker has a very unique voice.  She is authentic to the time, but does not strive to sound like Austen in any way.  You are given glimpses of the girls at Longbourn, but your heart lies with Sarah and her struggles.  Even the staunchest Austen fan can enjoy this novel.  

Longbourn by Jo Baker is available at all fine bookstores and libraries.