Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Pattillo

I managed to get this book read - absolutely necessary if I have any possibility of completing The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, issued by Austenprose - by reciting it to my husband as we drove ten hours to Indiana to celebrate Christmas. I have wondered about the books of Beth Pattillo before but never read them, not being super keen on Austenesque set in the present, so this was a welcome opportunity to expand my horizons a bit. The Dashwood Sisters Tell All is about two sisters (shocking, I know) who travel to England to attend a Jane Austen themed walking tour as part of their mother's dieing request. The mother, being a attentive Janeite, knew the importance of documenting her final wishes rather than simply relying on a promise to do as she wished. John Dashwood, after all, certainly intended to fulfill his father's request to care for his sisters, amply demonstrating how good intentions often go to waste. Before Ellen and Mimi Dodge can inherit their mother's estate, they must attend this tour and choose a place to scatter her ashes, and they also must determine what to do with a most unusual item that had been in her possession - Cassandra Austen's diary.

I challenge any Austen lover to read this book without drooling over the prospect of Cassandra's diary. Such an item, as the characters in the book are so good as to continually assert, would be priceless. One of the most intriguing parts of this story is reading some of those imagined entries. Ms. Pattillo envisions a new romance for Jane that drives her behavior in some of the most debated episodes of her life, like the flirtation with Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal. The whole concept is extremely juicy and compelling, but I found myself dissatisfied at the end. The problem with this book is not the premise, which is fabulous, but the characters. Like every Sense and Sensibility modernization I have read during the course of this challenge, the modern versions of Eleanor and Marianne annoyed the heck out of me.

Why is it that when Eleanor and Marianne are transformed into 21st century women they become frigid and ditsy? I noticed this in The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine and Jennifer Ziegler's Sass & Serendipity. Do the Dashwood ladies just not translate into our modern world, or have they not been done justice? I think it is a case of the latter. In this story, Ellen is cast as the practical one while behaving as if her head was sewn on backwards. Here she is in possession of an invaluable article that she insists on hiding it in her hotel room, repeatedly foreshadowing its eventual theft (I do not consider that tidbit a spoiler as it is blatantly apparent that this is precisely what will happen almost as soon as the diary is introduced). I felt like reaching into the book and smacking her. She also completely lacks Eleanor's keen perception of character and empathy, as demonstrated in her paranoid misreading of her Edward's intentions. Mimi is the pretty vivacious one with a knack for falling for the wrong guy. I think I would have been more satisfied with her portrayal if she hadn't kept complaining that no one thought she was smart while acting like an idiot. Should it not be the cardinal rule of all Austen homages that characters display their essence through actions? A person who asserts one thing while behaving in an opposite fashion is the profile for a Lucy Steele or Fanny Dashwood, not our heroine.

Overall, despite my complaints, the book kept us well entertained though our car trip (the baby, in her infinite mercy, slept almost the entire way). I would love to attend a walking tour like the one described here. The Dodge sisters visit all the great Austen locals, from Steventon to Winchester. The story is, in many ways a Janeite fantasy come true, which is precisely what makes the main characters' shortcomings so annoying. I would love to further elaborate on my response to this book, but as I am just barely managing to get this post completed before the end of the year (and I still have one more review to go before the challenge can be considered complete - stay tuned!), I will conclude by simply saying that I do intend to read Ms. Pattillo's other books, but I am not in a rush to do so.   

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