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Monday, December 8, 2014
Tis the eight day of December, and what better way to begin a review of a book entitled Mr. Darcy's Christmas Calendar than with the scene in which the heroine, Lizzy Benson, opens the door of her very special advent calendar, purchased at the gift shop at Chawton. Before I proceed any further, I must confess that until I met my husband, I had no notion what an Advent calendar was. Yes, I grew up watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but I really had no idea those little doors might contain chocolate or other treats inside. Then my mother-in-law presented me with the calendar she made my husband when he was born. This framed piece of embroidery features a large Christmas tree with twenty-five ornaments, each with a corresponding hook, to which scraps of paper are attached. Part of the Christmas magic in my husband's house was waking up each morning in December to see what instructions or treats the elves had left overnight, usually a Christmas story, craft, or game. For ten years now I have been in charge of making sure this bit of Christmas magic keeps happening. From having no notion what one was, an Advent calendar has become one of the most important parts of our holiday.
That being said, when I learned one of my favorite Austenesque authors, Jane Odiwe, was writing a Christmas story about an Advent calendar, I made immediate plans to read the book December first, before a fire, and with a cup of hot cider in hand. Unfortunately, these plans were waylaid when my grandfather died on November 30th. When I finally did get to the book, it proved the perfect balm to my heartache. The opportunity to escape the modern world for a fantastic Regency one, in which Jane Austen lives side by side with her characters from Pride and Prejudice, slowly tweaking the story until it takes the form we all know and love, is, as the heroine notes in the quote above, an extraordinary Christmas gift. I've enjoyed all three of Ms. Odiwe's time-travel tales (be sure to read my reviews of Searching for Captain Wentworth and Project Darcy), but I think this latest is my favorite. I say that taking into to account the brilliantly portrayed romance between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy in Project Darcy, but I did not find the modern day romance nearly as satisfying. In contrast, the hero of Mr. Darcy's Christmas Calendar, a Mr. Williams, is the perfect Darcy stand-in: even more Darcy than Darcy in this book. Another strength of the novel is how the modern events parallel those of the past, which I greatly enjoyed. Further, Christmas magic totally penetrates the story, and as odd as traveling through time via an advent calendar might seem, I found it a lot more believable than the machinations used int he previous stories, probably due to the holiday atmosphere. Yet I think my favorite thing about this particular book had less to do with a swoon-worthy hero and the joys of the season than the commentary on the writing process the book provides.
Bear with me for a moment, but this is a book written by an author about another author who is writing a book. And not just any book. When the story begins, Austen is still calling her tale First Impressions, and it bears little resemblance to the final novel, most particularly in that there is no Darcy and Wickham seems set to play the hero. There are not many scenes in which Lizzy gets to speak directly with Jane Austen, but when she does, great truths about the writing process are revealed. I don't know if this aspect of the book would be as fascinating to a reader who does not write fiction, but I found myself laughing again and again over the writing truths Austen shares, making her feel relatable as a fellow writer, not just a distant, mythologized idol. A few examples:
"I've lost my way a little with the plot, and I'm not sure how to get it back."
"My characters are always springing out of nowhere; believe me, I have little control over them, but sometimes they are reticent to show themselves."
In the past, I have often lauded Ms. Odiwe's ability to encapsulate her painter's eye into her writing. While that eye is still definitely on display in Mr. Darcy's Christmas Calendar, I feel like she is showing us her writer-self, as channeled through Austen, in a manner not accessible in her previous work. I throughly enjoyed this book. I will return to it at future Christmases. It was a lovely way to get into the holiday spirit.
And do go check out the online Advent Calendar Ms. Odiwe has available on her blog. Better than chocolate: http://janeaustensequels.blogspot.com/2014/12/a-happy-mr-darcy-advent-calendar.html.