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Originally published Friday, July 13, 2012 at 5:02 AM

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'The Beresfords': 'Mansfield Park,' 1980s edition

Bellevue author Christina Dudley's "The Beresfords" takes Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" plot and updates it to the mid-1980s, with two cousins making mischief in what should be a conservative Garden of Eden. Dudley reads Wednesday at the University Book Store's Bellevue location.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Christina Dudley

The author of "The Beresfords" will read at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University Book Store's Bellevue location, 990 102nd Ave. N.E.; free (425-462-4500 or
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Of Jane Austen's six completed novels, "Mansfield Park" is probably the thorniest and the least loved. This tale of Fanny Price, the timid poor relation who goes to live with her well-to-do cousins and secretly falls in love with the most virtuous of them, lacks some of the sparkle and wit of the more popular "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma," though it is full of ironic humor at the many transgressions among the rich cast of characters.

It also seems the least likely of Austen's oeuvre to sustain a contemporary reworking — but Bellevue author Christina Dudley has taken on that task with some success in her new novel, "The Beresfords" (BellaVita Press, 400 pp., $15.95).

Set in the mid-1980s, the novel introduces us to the first-person narrator, Frannie, who is sitting around the pool with her well-to-do cousins, waiting for her adored cousin Jonathan to return. "There I was, skinny as a string bean, flat as a washboard, pale as an albino, quiet as a shadow," Frannie notes, and it's no surprise that she is overlooked in the family full of attractive and vibrant older cousins.

Almost immediately, the author introduces the Grant twins, the snakes in this particular conservative, churchy Garden of Eden. The brother twin, Eric, quickly sets Frannie's two girl cousins abuzz in a rivalry for his attention; the sister twin, Caroline, sets her sights on the principled but susceptible Jonathan.

In many ways, the plot cleverly mirrors the structure of "Mansfield Park," but the events — pool parties, drunken misbehavior at the lake cabin, accounts of keggers and highs and hangovers — sound a little puerile in comparison to the elegant characterizations and deeper dialogue of "Mansfield Park" (a comparison the current novel invites by its close modeling on the original).

By the end of the first poolside scene, "Satan got his toehold" into this milieu — except, of course, in Frannie, who has several high-minded discussions about religious issues with Jonathan. Until, that is, he too succumbs to the lures of Caroline Grant, despite her irreligious talk and her scandalous red bikini.

Author Dudley makes it clear early on that unlike the Austen original, the Beresford cousins with whom Frannie is raised aren't blood kin to her; her indolent but sweet-natured aunt (who rescues Frannie from her drug-addicted mother) is not the mother of all those cousins, but rather their stepmother.

This makes the eventual romance between Frannie and Jonathan more palatable to contemporary audiences; family relationships that were unexceptionable in Austen's England seem less mainstream today.

Ingenious and entertaining, "The Beresfords" nonetheless makes it clear that structure and plot are the least of the reasons why we read Jane Austen.

One rather perplexing note: Dudley's afterword, a salute to Austen's original Fanny Price, consistently misspells Fanny's name — even as she writes, "Fannie — this one's for you."

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