A warning for the wary: this post contains a few mild spoilers, more like hints, but nothing overt.
Finally we have a Sense & Sensibility sequel I can love! Jane Odiwe, as she did in Lydia Bennet's Story, has written a tale that clearly demonstrates her deep love of and respect for Austen and her characters. As I read Willoughby's Return: A Tale of Almost Irresistible Temptation, I never once had to stop and moan about a character acting in a manner incongruous to his or her essence (one of my greatest pet peeves). I must admit I found the subtitle a bit misleading and was very grateful that this story did not find Marianne Brandon doing anything untenable: her love of Colonel Brandon is pervasive throughout. Instead of confirming his roguishness, this story gives Willoughby the opportunity to complete the redemption Austen began.
More than Willoughby, this story is about the misunderstandings that result from the difficulties of communication in a highly regulated society - a rather constant theme throughout Austen. Even after marriage, Marianne and Colonel Brandon find themselves restrained from openly sharing their insecurities and fears. The same issue plagues Margaret Dashwood, now a grown lady of 18, as she negotiates her budding romance with a nephew of Colonel Brandon, Henry Lawrence.
The structure of the story largely mimics that of Sense & Sensibility, beginning in the country and moving to London for the season, the removal from which is marked by an illness. We again meet Mrs. Jennings, the Middletons, Lucy & Robert Ferrers, and Anne Steele in all their glory. Surprisingly absent are John and Fanny Dashwood, the latter being replaced (in spirit) by Lady Lawrence. Eliza Williams and her daughter are brought to life in a very sympathetic manner and Marianne's response to them is thoroughly realistic. I could have wished that Elinor and, particularly, Edward Ferrars played a larger role in the story but, as Ms. Odiwe has firmly establishes them as perfectly happy, they do not have much momentum to offer the plot. My only real complaint is that the book seemed to end too quickly. I'll just leave it with the statement that Margaret Dashwood is a far more forgiving lady than I could ever be.
This is definitely a book I will read again, probably directly on the tail of my next reading of Sense & Sensibility. I have long been a big fan of Lydia Bennet's Story and I must admit I like this book even better (the course of events in it are a bit more historically believable). Willoughby's Return is an excellent example of why Austen fan fiction should be left in the hands of those who ardently love and faithfully study Jane's work. It's one of the most satisfying sequels I have encountered.