I first got interested in Austenland by Shannon Hale because I’ve enjoyed her fantasy novels so much. The movie’s release helped push me to finally pick up the book (though I still haven’t watched the movie…) One of my goals this year is to read sequels, so I recently read Midnight in Austenland too. Consider this a two-fer review!
Both books are set in Pembrook Park, which promises a true Austen experience to devoted fans. Women (it’s all women) come to the manor house for two weeks, where they dress up in period clothing, assume a character and interact with actors hired to entertain–and romance (in an Austen-appropriate way, of course).
Austenland centers on Jane, perennially unlucky in love and slightly too obsessed with the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. She sees the trip to Pembrook Park as a kind of immersion therapy to finally kick the habit and move on. Once she arrives, though, she begins to wonder where the line between pretend-romance and real-romance actually lies (hint: not where she thinks it does!)
Midnight in Austenland takes a Northanger Abbey spin, bringing in a murder mystery to liven (deaden?) things up. The heroine this time around is Charlotte, trying to cope with her divorce (from her lying, cheating, remarried-to-his-mistress husband). She finds comfort in Austen’s novels, and hopes that a bit of pretend will help ready her for living real life again. But then Charlotte thinks she finds a real dead body–and the question becomes whether there could be a real murder behind a pretend-mystery. And there’s some romance too, of course!
I enjoyed both of these books quite a bit, but surprisingly enough I have to say I preferred the sequel! Of course, Northanger Abbey is my favorite Austen novel…
The first book focuses almost exclusively on Jane’s romances, which is entertaining but still a somewhat thin thread. There are also some themes around acting and reality. One of the biggest arcs is about letting go of unhealthy fantasies but the ending, well, up-ended that message completely, and left that all rather confusing. Leaving us pretty much with a light romance. Still, a fun if somewhat slight book.
And then we get to Midnight in Austenland. And there’s murder, and ghost stories, and a seriously brooding hero and a rather witty hero, and two truly unpleasant anti-heroes, and Charlotte’s struggle to find her confidence–which she does. Spectacularly, I might add. The romance was slightly out-of-left-field, but was sweet enough when it came that I’ll take it.
A few characters return from the first book, gaining more depth and becoming more sympathetic in the process. Pembrook Park itself got much more interesting too. Jane’s experience convinced me that I would be unutterably bored in Austen’s England (probably true). Guests during Jane’s visit primarily sit around, drink tea, and do needlepoint. Charlotte gets to play parlor games and go riding and take an excursion to a ruined castle. So much more fun!
I think you could probably pick up the sequel before the first one without too much trouble, though reading them in order will explain a few points in the second book. They’re really both worth reading anyway. I can’t figure out from Hale’s website if she’s planning a third book, but I hope so–maybe a send-up of Persuasion, with two former lovers meeting at Pembrook Park? I’d read it!
Author’s Site: http://www.squeetus.com/