Review: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermidNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Series: The Austen Project
Published by Grove Press on April 15, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Gothic, Mystery, Retelling, Romance
Pages: 368
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
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Internationally best-selling crime writer Val McDermid has riveted millions of readers worldwide with her acutely suspenseful, psychologically complex, seamlessly plotted thrillers. In Northanger Abbey, she delivers her own, witty, updated take on Austen’s classic novel about a young woman whose visit to the stately home of a well-to-do acquaintance stirs her most macabre imaginings, with an extra frisson of suspense that only McDermid could provide.

Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels? A delectable, note-perfect modern update of the Jane Austen classic, Northanger Abbey tells a timeless story of innocence amid cynicism, the exquisite angst of young love, and the value of friendship.

One of my many weaknesses as a reader of fictions is my inability to resist a novel that purports to have anything to do with Austen. A retelling, a continuation, or anything of that sort, and I want it desperately, no matter how terrible it looks. In this case, though, I was hopeful. I enjoyed the Austen Project Sense and Sensibility fairly well and the cover of Northanger Abbey is gorgeous. Plus, Austen’s Northanger Abbey is one of my favorite of Austen’s novels. This seemed like a safe bet. Famous last words. Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid has the plot down but lacks the heart.

What I’ve noticed about both Austen Project novels is that they are very close retellings. McDermid has all the key elements of Northanger Abbey in place. The stories are modernized, yes, but so true to the original as to often feel a bit awkward. On the one hand, it’s nice how well they adapt the stories for a modern setting, but I feel like more work would really have sold it. Worse, I don’t feel like McDermid puts her own touch on Northanger Abbey. She doesn’t add any new depth or meaning to Austen’s story.

Then again, I did find McDermid’s Catherine to be perhaps slightly more intelligent. There’s less made of her fancies about what might have happened in the Tilney’s house. Cat’s an avid reader, obsessed with vampires rather than the gothic. She’s almost a Jane Bennet figure in McDermid’s retelling, determined to think the best of people but with a bookish twist. This change could have been an interesting one if it carried through.

Unfortunately, it’s offset by the painful texts that everyone in the book sends. A girl as smart and bookish as Cat seems to be would not send this: “I’m OK. Fone ws dead b4. Looking 4ward 2 seeing u. Mist u all. C u soon.” Now, some people do engage in texts that hurt me, I’m sure, but it’s basically everyone who texts like this, even if it doesn’t fit their character. The worst part is how much this seems to be textspeak written by someone who’s never written or read any actual text messages. I mean, this book is modern and Cat presumably has a smart phone since it can access facebook and the internet. Smartphones have autocorrect so texting like this happens less often. The letter abbreviations probably still happen, but why fone and the utterly puzzling “mist” in place of missed? The latter makes it sound like she’s going to break out the spray bottle on her family when she gets home. It’s a small thing, but I groaned every time.

Mostly, I think McDdermid’s retelling utterly fails to capture the magic of Northanger Abbey, also known as Henry Tilney. He’s here and he’s nice and he likes to read, but he’s one of my favorite fictional heroes and I didn’t do a bit of swooning. He’s not as funny or wonderful here. He’s a lot of what makes the book for me and the Henry Tilney in this Northanger Abbey is rather flat.

McDermid does make a change at the very end, to explain the circumstances of Cat’s departure from Netherfield. It’s kind of interesting and kind of infuriating. It’s also one hundred percent stolen from the end of Bend It Like Beckham. The execution again felt clunky and I’m not entirely comfortable with the way it was handled.

At this point, I’m viewing the Austen Project with a lot more skepticism. The focus seems to be on retelling it as faithfully to the events as possible when what matters most is the heart. I’d recommend a reread of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, rather than spending time on McDermid’s.

Favorite Quote:

“I don’t know anybody kinder than you. Actually, I don’t know anybody like you.”

“I can’t believe you know so few people, Johnny.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

gif northanger henry tilney judging

4 responses to “Review: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid”

  1. Mia Hayson says:

    Ahhh! It’s so sad when a retelling falls flat. I think I like it best when the story is changed a lot but the changes make sense for the time period/changed cultural aspects and etc otherwise I feel like I could just be reading the classic you know?

    That said I will probably read this out of curiosity, and because ack I’m a sucker for a retelling. All of them. I am a sucker for all retellings ever. I hoard them.

    Mia Hayson recently posted…Why Does YA Slating Hurt So Much?My Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Believe me, no judgment, since I also cannot resist a retelling. OBVIOUSLY.

      But, yes, I do know what you mean. Did you read The Trouble with Flirting by Claire LaZebnik? I thought that was a great modernization. Lots of good changes and adaptations to the setting.

  2. That’s disappointing to hear. I felt the same about S&S that it was really just too close to the original. It was cute and it was modern but I just wondered what the point was if it was going to stick SO close. I’d hoped this one would be different.
    Becky LeJeune recently posted…The Blade of the Samurai by Susan SpannMy Profile

  3. Grace says:

    BEST GIF USE EVER!!!! JJ Field please stop smirking, you’re making me dizzy from swooning too much.

    I had such high hopes for this book. It was a real shame too, because I’ve not read a Northanger retelling yet, and it’s my fave JA. Tilney is my fave boy too 🙂 But I felt like the author was quite condescending in her tone as well; the whole vampire obsession etc was clearly a dig at the Twilight phenomenon. And yes, the language of the texts as well, grated me to no end!

    I liked this Henry as well, but not as much. I felt like both Cathy and Henry weren’t really that well fleshed out as they could have been either, which is sad because they are both so damn wonderful!

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