Jane Austen fan fiction — two new and worthy wannabes
Two new novels by Seattle writer Katherine Reay and Los Angeles author Syrie James draw their inspiration from the fiction of Jane Austen — Reay sets her story in contemporary Seattle, while James tells a story of a teenage Austen’s first love.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Lizzy & Jane’
by Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson, 352 pp., $15.99
‘Jane Austen’s First Love’
by Syrie James
Berkley/Penguin Group, 391 pp., $16
Despite the fact that Jane Austen completed only six novels, Austen fan fiction is such a booming business that Janeites are never short of something to read (and argue about). Two new novels — by Seattle author Katherine Reay, and Los Angeles’ Syrie James (who is dubbed “the queen of 19th-century re-imaginings” by L.A. Magazine), offer very different takes on Austen’s themes, characters and personal history.
“Lizzy & Jane” is a contemporary novel about two estranged sisters — their Austen-fan mother named them after the mutually beloved sisters in “Pride and Prejudice.” The mother’s early death 15 years previously, however, was a disastrous family turning point: Overwhelmed, the surviving family members turned away from each other. Now Jane, the older sister, has also been diagnosed with cancer and must undergo chemotherapy. Lizzy, head chef of a noted New York restaurant, has lost her inspiration and is on the verge of losing her job; she takes a few weeks’ leave and returns to Seattle to be with Jane.
Both sisters are prickly, harboring long-held resentments and a lengthy estrangement, and Reay has a great hand with the dialogue as the words snap and crackle between them. There are bleak scenes in the cancer center where the sisters watch the chemotherapy drugs seep into Jane’s bloodstream, and learn the stories of her fellow cancer patients — some of them hopeful, others crushed or angry. Gradually Lizzy discovers a new culinary talent: creating food that appeals uniquely to the tastes of chemo patients. She also discovers a romantic interest in a single father with plenty of issues of his own.
Austen fans will appreciate the many nods to the author along the way: the references to Elinor and Marianne (of “Sense and Sensibility”) as a mirror for the differences between Reay’s title protagonists, and most of all, the letter (cribbed by Lizzy’s suitor from the finale of “Persuasion”) that ushers in a graceful denouement. The well-drawn characters, zippy dialogue, local Seattle scenes and intriguing ruminations on cuisine all contribute to a consistently engaging novel.
In “Jane Austen’s First Love,” Syrie James — author of previous Austen-themed books, as well as such titles as “Dracula, My Love” and “The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë” — builds a novel around a little-known episode in Jane Austen’s life. Austen’s teenaged acquaintance with Edward Taylor, heir to an estate in Kent and the scion of a remarkable family, earned several mentions in her letters as the man “on whom I once fondly doated”; James has used this connection as the basis for a richly imagined novel about youthful love and matchmaking in Austen’s time.
The author’s extensive research into dates, events and manners of the period is clear in every page. The exposition and dialogue are full of allusions to Austen’s own writing: Mrs. Austen’s exclamations of joy on learning of the engagement of her son to the daughter of a baronet echo the raptures of Mrs. Bennet upon learning of her own daughter’s impending marriage to the wealthy Mr. Darcy (in “Pride and Prejudice”). Other echoes of Austen’s prose resound throughout the book.
Advancing the plot along are some very Austen-like devices: some home theatricals (shades of “Mansfield Park,” though less disastrous), and some mistaken matchmaking (as in “Emma”). There’s even a hint of “Persuasion” in Jane’s leap from a stuck carriage into Edward’s arms.
As in the Reay book, the more you know about Austen and the world of her novels, the more you’ll enjoy this entertaining story about what might have been. Unfortunately for posterity — but luckily, perhaps, for fiction writers — Jane’s sister Cassandra burned most of Jane’s letters after her death. History’s loss is imagination’s spur.
Melinda Bargreen is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times and the author of “50 Years of Seattle Opera.” She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).