Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale
Let me just get this out of the way to begin with: My friend Tracy (name changed) would probably hate this book.
Let me back up a bit.
Shannon Hale’s Austenland* is one of my go-to favorites for frothy and sweet but not stupid reading. I love Jane Austen, I love Shannon Hale, I love Colin Firth, I love romance and happy endings. I think Austenland was the first book I actually bought for my Kindle (mostly I just loaded up on freebies); I loved it enough to want to buy it again to have easy access to it all the time. It’s basically a one-long-sitting read and cheers me up every time. I even had my book club read it after we’d finished all the Jane Austen books, and it was enjoyed, even if not all of them loved it like I do.
Fast forward a few months from that book club meeting. I’m sitting at work one afternoon with my friend K, who is also in the book club, and our friend Tracy walks in. Without preamble, she declares to the room, “Have you ever read Austenland? Don’t. Worst book ever.”
This isn’t the only book we emphatically disagree on. She loves Eragon. She hates Jane Eyre. I think her main complaint with Austenland is that it *SPOILER ALERT* ended happily. (I sometimes wonder if she also hates puppies and sunshine. Not really. And I love her dearly. But that Jane Eyre thing makes me worry sometimes.)
Anyway. Midnight in Austenland is the, well, not really sequel, but follow-up to Austenland. It takes place in the same setting—a fictional resort in England where rich women pay fabulous amounts of money to have an immersive Jane Austen vacation experience, complete with handsome actors in breeches whose job is to make the guests feel enchanting—but most of the characters (with a few sparkling exceptions) are different. While Austenland took its inspiration more from Pride and Prejudice, with healthy doses of Persuasion and Mansfield Park thrown in, Midnight is most closely allied with Northanger Abbey. It’s basically Shannon Hale’s nod to the Gothic novel and is more of a mystery novel than a romance, although it also *SPOILER ALERT* ends happily. (Sorry, Tracy.)
This book features Charlotte, a successful entrepreneur who discovered Jane Austen’s books after her husband left her for a woman named Justice. (Yes, really.) Her two children are spending a few weeks with their father during the summer and she decides to take her first vacation in years. A casual mention of Jane Austen to her travel agent ends up with Charlotte booking a two-week stay at Pembrook Park. Once there, she begins to lose track of what is real and what is only make-believe, and she must decide whether she actually has uncovered a sinister mystery or if it is only part of the entertainment.
I love Shannon Hale’s voice and the way her books make you feel like a member of a cool little club with the narrator’s sly comments and the inner monologue her characters carry on. She is witty and intelligent and obviously having a whole lot of fun writing these books. But I also enjoy these books because although they are firmly planted in the “just-for-fun” category, they’re actually well written and smart. There’s substance going on; they’re not just cotton candy. They’re well researched and stand on their own rather than being mere derivative fanfic. They’re definitely more frothy than most of her other books, so if you’re coming to these books expecting the beautiful literary prose tone of, say, The Goose Girl, you might be disappointed. But the writing is still excellent and well-crafted and the humor is great, and the characters are ones that you wouldn’t mind curling up and spending an afternoon with.
I’d recommend reading Austenland first, just because I love it and it gives you a bit of perspective on some of the events of Midnight in Austenland, but Midnight can stand on its own quite easily if you haven’t read Austenland (or, you know, if you trust Tracy’s judgment more than mine or if you hate happiness and butterflies). Four stars.
P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, there are actually many books on which Tracy and I agree; I’d be willing to bet that in most instances trusting her judgment wouldn’t be all that different from trusting mine.
*Brief synopsis of Austenland for those who are interested: Jane Hayes is a thirtysomething with a string of bad relationships and an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth. Compared to Darcy, real men just don’t stack up. When Jane’s great-aunt dies and leaves her an all-expenses-paid vacation to Pembrook Park, a Jane-Austen-themed resort, Jane decides that maybe this will be the best way to kick her Darcy fixation for good.