By Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury / 198 pages / $19.95
Ask a woman to describe Fitzwilliam Darcy, the obstinately ineligible stiff who thaws under the lively wit of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and watch her eyes take on a lustful sheen as she conjures up the image of Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's novel, plunging shirtless into an icy English pond.
Firth played another Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary, suffering through one of Bridget's mum's awful parties in a reindeer sweater. Austen would have been amused or horrified - maybe both - to know that her bachelor catch has become the model for all the granite-jawed, filthy-rich men who have caved to auburn-haired damsels in chick lit down through the ages.
Austen lampooned femme-friendly romance novels mercilessly in Northanger Abbey. But she tapped into that stubbornly self-defeating female desire to win the emotionally unavailable guy that no amount of feminist thought reform can fully cure. This is why Darcy-fancying persists among the armies of urban singletons who toil away at nominally glamorous jobs in sleek offices, plowing through scads of faithless, feckless boyfriends, gripped by fantasy as they search for Mr. Wrong.
In Shannon Hale's novel Austenland, Jane Hayes is one of them, a pretty, 30-plus Manhattan graphic designer who is married to her Pride and Prejudice DVDs. I'd pretty much made up my mind to hurl the next faux-Austen tome that opened with her phrase, "It is a truth universally acknowledged." But my arm froze in mid-air when I read Hale's second sentence: "There was no husband, but those weren't necessary anymore." As with Bridget Jones, what Austenland lacks in originality it makes up in cheeky irreverence.
The novel kicks into gear with the death of Jane's shrewd great-aunt, who has left her addled great-niece a nonrefundable ticket to England to spend three weeks in a Jane Austen theme park, where, it is hoped, aversion therapy will cure her addiction. Ha! In these cheesy environs Jane is renamed Miss Jane Erstwhile, strapped into frocks by a presiding virago named Mrs. Wattlesbrook (the title may be Austenland, but the names are straight out of Dickens), plays whist, makes languid conversation, eats enormous meals and waits for men to show up from hunting.
Among them is the snooty Mr. Nobley, who buries his head in books and refuses to be seduced. Jane prides herself on her savvy awareness that the estate is riddled with actors, but she is drawn into the increasingly sudsy goings-on, until neither she nor the reader knows what's real and who's faking.
For all her breezily amused tone and goofy overplotting, Hale treats Jane and her fellow park clients with affection, and she shows that the Janes of today are as likely as the Darcys to shy from commitment. Naturally, cake is had and eaten, too; like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane learns life's lessons and gets her man.
I don't want to oversell Austenland, but if you're looking for some lit lite to see you through a day at the beach, you could do a lot worse.
Ella Taylor writes for the Los Angeles Times.