Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen by Sally Smith O'Rourke

Who amongst readers hasn't wished to be able to meet her favorite author?  Some people can fulfill this desire by going to a signing and exchanging small talk with the author.  For others though, their favorite author is long dead and nothing short of time travel would make meeting them possible.  I fall into this latter camp as Jane Austen is my favorite author.  So a novel with the premise of characters truly stepping through a rip in the fabric of time and meeting Austen as happens in Sally Smith O'Rourke's novel, Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen, was eminently intriguing to me.

The novel opens as the elegant and historic Rose Ball at Pemberley Farms is winding down and New York artist Eliza Knight is reflecting on the fantastic, enchanted events that brought her to this Virginia horse farm and into the life of the gorgeous and enigmatic Fitz Darcy, Pemberley Farms' owner.  Finding sealed letters behind the mirror of her new, antique vanity table, she discovered that they were from Jane Austen to Fitzwilliam Darcy.  She then subsequently discovered that the Fitzwilliam Darcy the letters were written to was in fact did not live in 1813 but was a time traveler from the present day and the current owner of Pemberley Farms in Virginia.  Eliza traveled from New York to Virginia to deliver the letters to him (still thinking they were in fact written to his ancestor as he had not told her his story--told in O'Rourke's first book The Man Who Loved Jane Austen--yet) and found not only the real life inspiration for one of Austen's most famous characters but also a good and upstanding man who might just turn out to be the love of her life.

But Eliza and Fitz's budding relationship is not the only plot thread here.  There's the matter of Eliza processing Fitz's deep and abiding affection for Austen; an overbearing woman determined to authenticate the letters and solidify her reputation as the preminent Austen expert; the culture shock that Simmons, the stableboy from Austen's time who steps through the time portal into the twenty-first century in search of Fitz Darcy and a job in his stables, faces in this most curious of times; and of course the daily life and thoughts of Austen herself still in 1810.

There is much that must be explained from the previous book, at least in the beginning, and because of that the narrative pace is much slower at the start than at the end.  Eliza's insecurity and growing jealousy of Fitz's love for Austen hampers the progress of the relationship as do Fitz's occasional evasions and abruptnesses.  Fitz is not entirely the character that Austen created and Eliza, while pragmatic and accomplished, is not quite what we could of expect of a modern day Lizzie Bennet but Austen's characters are very much bound by the conventions of their time and Fitz and Eliza are clearly twenty-first century characters.  The scenes with Simmons experiencing technology and all the differences between the 1810s and now are delightful, especially when he is once again helping a sick horse, comfortable in his element, and curious about advances in equine treatments.  The scenes with Austen herself are interesting and shed light on the life she could have lived amongst her family and small circle of acquaintance.  The eventual twining together of the three plot lines works and the twist in the end is clever and satisfying.  Those readers who enjoy all things Austen will find this a fresh and original take on their favorite author and her most beloved characters.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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