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AUSTENLAND - Shannon Hale

By Mle_vnc @Backlist_Books
AUSTENLAND - Shannon Hale
Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.
Decked out in empire-waisted gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen;or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It's all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own? - Goodreads Description

I guess I didn't expect much of this book. To be honest, I picked it up on a whim. But even so.... I was disappointed. I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan of Austen - more that I have fond memories of reading her books at a certain point in my development as a reader. And occasionally - often when the weather begins to turn - I find simple romantic novels appealing.
This one takes place not in Austen's world, but in a modern-day facsimile thereof. Jane Hayes, a Darcy-obsessed young professional, so far unlucky in love, can't seem to get past her romantic notions of love based on Austen novels (or, more accurately, the Colin Firth movie depiction). The book takes place in an odd play-acted vacation spot, where paid actors create Austen's world and characters for women like Jane (but usually much more wealthy) to step into. 
Already the premise is a tricky one to pull off. First of all, what's the point of play-acting falling in love with Darcy when you never know if it's real - or worse know that it isn't - and it can't ever go anywhere? It's false love that therefore defeats the whole fantasy. On top of which the lines between acting and reality are never well defined in the book. The reader isn't let in on whether what Jane is seeing in her fellow Austenland characters are part of the play or a glimpse of real emotion. I feel like this could have been written in such a way as to give an inkling, therefore making it more interesting.    
And then there's Jane, who quite frankly, I found a bit annoying. She bounces back and forth at whiplash pace between being overly cynical and "swearing off men entirely" and wanting to lose herself in the ultra-romance of the Austen world. It makes no sense. These are polar opposites. It's unclear what she hopes to get from the whole experience - or what the great-aunt who sent her to Austenland hoped to provide her with. Her very own Darcy? Or a cure to her hope of finding him? 
**SPOILER** Her dalliance with the gardener is likewise confusing. There doesn't seem to be much of a connection there, beyond the fact that he can procure modern-day enjoyments for her and happens to like basketball. He fills her need for something "real" - but I kept wondering, isn't the whole point of her vacation to avoid reality? And if she wants "real," why not simply leave?
It's obvious that Mr. Nobley is supposed to be the aloof gentleman who is resisting falling in love with her yet unable to do so. A character familiar from Austen's own writing - but not so convincingly portrayed or attractive here. I get what Hale was trying to do, but it really didn't draw me in. He may have won over Jane and countless other female guests, but not this reader.
And then we come to her enquiries by surreptitious email about the background of the actors playing the two men - and this further confuses the plot. Is Nobley the heartbroken man whose crazy wife betrayed him and broke his heart, or is that actor the one portraying Captain East? And does it even matter if all they're doing is acting? Why bother trying to find out this information at all? 
And the ending really didn't work for me. Seriously? You've got two paid actors who, after playing these roles for years suddenly both fall in love with a guest (who they've "known" for a couple of weeks) and then follow her to the airport and literally fight over her? And then one follows her onto the plane, apparently planning to move to a different continent for a girl who only just learned his real name? Come ON. **END SPOILER**
I had hoped for a bit of fluffy escapism, but what I found instead was a story that was easy to read, yes, but also muddled and a bit frustrating. I didn't much care about Jane, and none of the other female characters were sufficiently developed as to evoke any sympathy. The male characters were likewise ill-conceived and alternately menacing, frustrating and falsely charming. 
Perhaps had I been more of an Austen devotee I would have found the overall premise more appealing and had an easier time suspending my disbelief. Perhaps. But as it stands, I was glad this was such a short novel.  
Book Title: Austenland
Author: Shannon Hale
Edition: Paperback
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Released: 2007 (Re-issued July 2nd, 2013)
Genre: Fiction, Jane Austen, 1800s, Romance
Pages: 208
Date Read: September 13-16, 2013
Rating: 3/10

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