This book was a big departure from what I usually read. I don't as a rule like Austen sequels, and I don't like sequel stories that take place within the same family. Sometimes the portrayal of the same people by two different authors, especially when one is Jane Freaking Austen, is so jarring and different I can't read either book for awhile, the classic and its sequel.
When the author enquired whether I'd be interested in this book, I was caught between my usual “No, thank you” reaction to Austen Sequels, and the opportunity to read about Mary Bennet, who was the sister after Jane and Elizabeth that I most liked and wanted to find happiness. I'm glad I read this book, as it was familiar and enjoyable, though it didn't leave me with the almost mental exhaustion and feeling of admiration as I had finishing Pride & Prejudice, which, the first time I read it, was so compelling and absorbing I was all wrung out when I was done.
The story opens with Elizabeth and Jane married and living with their respective husbands, corresponding about Kitty and Mary. Both sisters seem to find Mary very tiresome, but also think that her personality shouldn't preclude her from gaining a bit of social polish, perhaps, and certainly finding someone to marry. Since Jane is hosting Kitty, Jane asks Elizabeth to host Mary, with both sisters hoping that their influence will yield happiness for both girls.
Mary occupies the same role she has for years: she's awkward and quiet, pious and very shy, uncomfortable in large, loud social gatherings, and very dedicated to her music, though her practice hasn't yielded much in additional talent. In one scene, she's playing the piano for a dancing party at the Lucas' when a very windblown young man approaches her and in a somewhat goofy manner, asks her to dance. One of the other girls points out that Mary never dances, and besides she can't, because if she did no one would be available to play the music.
So Mary moves in with Elizabeth at Pemberley, and shortly after she arrives the family is invited to stay at Rosings with Lady Catherine, except for Mary, because Lady Catherine, who is as rude and insane as ever, has decided she hasn't sufficient room, so Mary stays with Mr. and Mrs. Collins.
Patrice Sarath, the author, maintains the attitude of many of the very familiar characters, and really, the circle of Mary's acquaintance retreads so much of Elizabeth's during Pride & Prejudice, few new characters had to be invented out of whole cloth.
One, the hero, Tom Aikens, is adorable. He's horse-mad, awkward, extremely active, and as unlike Mary as could be. She likes to sit and read; he can barely sit still let alone focus on a story. Yet he likes Mary, and swears his horse, Hyperion, whom he takes incredibly good care of, likes Mary, too. Mr. Aikens is not always wise in his actions, though, and can lose his temper – at one point he snaps at Lizzy that she doesn't know Mary at all, and her understanding of her sister is sadly wrong.
But other characters, like Ann De Bourgh, are less developed, and end up partially wooden, without the vitality and dimension of characters like Tom Aikens.
Mr. Bennet is funny; this made me laugh, even with the modern reference:
‘To be sure,’ Mr Bennet said with great solemnity. ‘Upon awakening every morning I ask myself, “What would Lady Catherine do?”’
The other thing that kept catching my eyes as I read seemed like “in jokes” to anyone who is very familiar with all things Pride & Prejudice, including the movie versions. I found a handful of words here and there that were very similar to lines in the 2005 film, almost a reference, but I couldn't be sure.
And Lizzy's ruminations were also reflective of the reader's knowledge of the original book:
When her gaze fell on a miniature of her husband and all that it represented, she knew that Jane was right. Perhaps Mary would never find such happiness, but to withhold any opportunity from her by the simple expedient of assuming that she of all others would never fall in love, that she would never attract a respectable man, was as prejudiced a thought as any that Lizzy had been susceptible to.
For we all know how that turned out, she thought. My prejudice almost cost me my love.
Later, Mary and Georgiana read a copy of Austen's Northanger Abbey. Wink wink, nudge nudge.
I found the references to all versions of Pride and Prejudice heavy handed, and I almost suspected they were meant to be sort of winking at me, as a fellow fan of the story.
I liked Sarath's portrayal of Mary, though. I like that she struggled with her inclination to study and to recommend behaviors for others, but I also like that she grew up, and learned to recognize the rigidity of her own thinking, and how limiting it was. Mary struggles with her devotion to Fordyce's Sermons, and in one scene realizes that words that fit her life and aspirations before didn't fit anymore:
Mary closed the book and blew out the candle and prayed to let herself be easy. As comfort warmed her and she drowsed, she had a curious thought. Perhaps she should not rest all of her hopes on Fordyce. He had been a good guide, but a narrow one, and she had begun, if not to walk a different path, then at least to question the mapmaker. I can still be good, she thought, sleepier now. But what price goodness if it comes too easily?
Everything in the book is both very familiar, like a flannel nightgown you've worn a hundred times, and yet a very small bit new, like you used a new fabric softener and so that nightgown is a bit different and noticeable. Reading this story is like visiting old friends, ones (if you're me anyway) you've read a few dozen times. The story and the characters would seem familiar to readers who love Pride and Prejudice, even if not a great deal happens during the course of the Unexpected Miss Bennet. At the end of the book, I was happy for Mary, but I wanted to have had more scenes with her, and less with the others. Mary grows up, and she becomes a very interesting person, but she never manages to outshine her sisters, even when they're supposed to be supporting characters.