posted at Monday, March 30th, 2015 at 8:00 AM | Reviews, Young Adult
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.First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett
Narrator: Jayne Entwistle
Length: 10 hrs, 52 mins
Published by Penguin Audio on October 16, 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Historical, Mystery, Romance
Amazon • The Book Depository • Audible
A thrilling literary mystery co-starring Jane Austen from theNew York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale
Charlie Lovett first delighted readers with his New York Times bestselling debut, The Bookman’s Tale. Now, Lovett weaves another brilliantly imagined mystery featuring one of English literature’s most popular and beloved authors: Jane Austen.
Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.
In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.
The course of Austen fanaticism never did run smooth. Charlie Lovett wrote The Bookman’s Tale, which I’ve not yet read, and which is, by most accounts, quite a good novel. The fact that he was writing an Austen-inspired novel called First Impressions could not fail to miss my notice, and I could not possibly fail to read it. Surely, this novel would be legit, a true celebration of Jane Austen, clever and well-written. Instead, First Impressions is a terrible mystery, a worse romance, and somewhat insulting to Jane Austen.
First Impressions alternates between a fictionalized history of Jane Austen and a modern contemporary romance/mystery of Sophie, a fan of Jane Austen’s work and bibliophile. In theory, I am so down for this; in actuality, I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes and wanting to punch the book, which I couldn’t really do since it was digital. The switching between the two time periods to interweave the happenings of the past with the mystery of the present is a technique that can be used to great affect, as is the case in The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears, but Lovett’s feels very artificial, as he holds back information in the historical timeline to maintain the mystery in the contemporary one.
First Impressions seems to think that it’s Pride & Prejudice, happily declaring that Jane’s major fault is prejudice. In her case, she immediately makes up stories about everyone she meets, including clergyman Richard Mansfield, who she thought would be macabre old man, but turned out to be lively and a lover of literature. The modern timeline includes a romance begun with hatred (for five seconds) and a Wickham figure named Winston. Sophie misjudges Eric Hall, the American she initially heard mocking Austen fangirls in a bar. There is, however, nothing of Pride & Prejudice in it; these attempts fail utterly.
The novel also aims for some Northanger Abbey, and there it succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s Northanger Abbey taken seriously, without the elements of satire that make the intentionally ridiculous mystery so much fun. Without that, First Impressions has a rather dimwitted heroine who tries to solve an actual murder mystery. Add in the unending patriarchy of Mansfield Park, and you’ve pretty much got First Impressions.
The historical timeline has one major problem. The mystery plot imagines that Jane Austen may have been a plagiarist. Though this does not end up being the case, thank goodness, Lovett still imagines Jane as indebted to Richard Mansfield for her success. He’s the one who tells her to turn Elinor & Marianne into a narrative novel, and who suggests changing the title. Mansfield also comes up with the ideas for both First Impressions and Northanger Abbey. Later in the novel, she would have given up on writing, but for a promise to Mr. Mansfield, and she later names her most boring book for him in a move nobody saw coming.
This deeply offends me. Even though Mansfield was not the author of an original version of Pride & Prejudice that was printed with his book of allegorical stories, Lovett imagines him influential in Austen’s career. Few enough women were able to have writing careers in that time, and he wants to envision her as unable to be such a talented writer without the help of a man? I don’t fucking think so. Not to mention that Austen praises Mansfield’s allegories, even though Sophie Collingwood read them and they were horrid; Jane had better taste than that I’m sure.
This brings us to the second major problem in First Impressions: the romance. In First Impressions, Charlie Lovett has written some of the most awkward and terrible romance I’ve ever encountered. Creepiest to me were the attempts to write about other forms of love that really didn’t come across as intended.
It was not, she knew, the ache of a lover […] but she found that she could no longer think of him merely as a friend or companion.
The above quote is about Jane’s feelings for Mr. Mansfield, who is, incidentally, somewhere from 80 to 90 years old, while Jane was about 20. Previously, she’d talked about how their age difference made them better friends, since there was no question of a romantic relationship. Lovett clearly means for this to come across as a platonic love of the mind, but it doesn’t. She has this massive revelation about her love for Mr. Mansfield, which just is not a thing people have about friends. Jane also wants to confess her love to him, which again is not something I’ve ever done with a friend. It was so weird and creepy.
[Uncle Bertram] had been the one who introduced her to that world, and because of that he had been—well, she had never really named it before, but he had been, in a certain way, the love of her life.
In the modern timeline, Sophie Collingwood was very close with her Uncle Bertram. He is the one who taught her to love reading and book collecting. That does not, however, make the use of the phrase “love of her life” remotely okay. The english language desperately needs more words to cover varieties of love; we are very imprecise, and it can be hard to tell which sort of love is meant. However, the phrase “love of my life” is universally acknowledged to be about romantic love and should never ever be applied to uncles, no matter how you qualify it. That “in a certain way” doesn’t make anything better.
The intended romance is no better. About the only thing that I like is that Sophie Collingwood has some really hot casual sex without any sort of shame or shaming from others. She does this with Winston, who is the first of two men to ask for the second edition of Richard Mansfield’s allegories at the rare book shop where she works. When she eventually figures out that the printer of Mansfield’s book was her ancestor and that’s why she would be the only one to find it, she never once questions the motivations of the sexy Winston. She continues to search with him and sex with him. Even when he steals her car and the second edition, she still doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. THIS is why I accuse Sophie of being a dimwit and the mystery of being horrible. Like, ooooh, I wonder who the bad guy could possibly be, especially since the obvious love interest warned her away from him.
Then there’s the actual romance of the book. Eric Hall was visiting Oxford, and insulted Austen fangirls at a bar. Sophie overheard and was deeply insulted. They bump into each other on a walk, and he reveals his deep love of Austen’s writing, so they become friends over the course of that day. He invites her on an Austen-related outing the next day, but she says she has to attend a sculpture party at her family’s home. He shows up at the party, having researched and found her.
Then they kiss once, and he leaves for France, the end of his trip in England having arrived. From France, he sends her a second edition French Austen novel worth thousands of pounds and writes that he can’t stop thinking about her. Finally, he writes that he’s coming back for her, and he once again happens to find her (aka stalks her). During the course of the book, they interact in FOUR SCENES, including the final one where he saves her from Winston and reveals he was a good guy all along and also that he loves her. FOUR SCENES, PEOPLE. In the epilogue, they’re married. Even Austen’s heroes and heroines got to know each other more intimately before falling in love, and courting was much harder back then, for fuck’s sake.
If you, like me, are an Austen fangirl and have trouble resisting any spinoff or retelling, RESIST. First Impressions is not worth your time or money. Reread Northanger Abbey instead.
Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy: