October 17, 2014

The Opposite of Impressed

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

Release Date: October 16, 2014
Publisher: Penguin | Viking
Pages: 320 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
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.

DNF Thoughts on First Impressions

Note: I stopped reading First Impressions at 20%.
Contains spoiler-y comments on the beginning of the book. 

First Impressions was one of my most anticipated fall releases. As a HUGE Jane Austen fan, I wanted to read it as soon as I saw that it was "a novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen." It sounds like everything I love, and I was thrilled when I got a copy on NetGalley. As much as I love Austen's work, I also enjoy spin-offs and variations. I'm not an Austen purist - I'm totally open to new interpretations! So, I'm typically not bothered by an author taking some liberties. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish this book... and I think it's because I'm almost too familiar with Jane Austen and her life.

First Impressions alternates between two time periods: present day and Jane Austen's time (1790s-1817). In the portions set during Austen's time near the beginning of the book, Austen is in her twenties. She meets an older man named Mr. Mansfield (he's in his eighties), and they establish a friendship. At this point, she hasn't written a full book yet but is working on an epistolary novel that will eventually become Sense & Sensibility. Mansfield, just to note, is an entirely fictional character. He did not actually exist, so the "historical" portions are really an invented version of history (not a fictionalized version of Austen's actual life). I was expecting the Austen portions to be more realistic, which definitely threw me off from the start.

Mansfield and Austen have long conversations about books and spend lots of time together (presumably alone). During those chats, she reads him samples of her writing. She goes away at one point, and they continue their friendship by correspondence. Not only do I find it a little unbelievable that Jane would be spending that much time alone with a man (regardless of his age), but I find it even more of a stretch to believe that she would be writing him letters. Men and women could spend time alone together during that time period, but the rules for correspondence were much stricter. If letters were being exchanged by people of the opposite sex, it was typically a sign that they were engaged. And if they weren't, it was a breach of propriety (just look at Marianne and Willoughby). I have no idea if the age gap would make it less improper for Austen and Mansfield to correspond, but at that point I was questioning everything that I was reading. It just didn't feel like it fit within the time period! Then, Jane begins to discover that she loves him. But it's not as a lover or a parent? I don't even know.
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. (11%) 
It's well known that Jane never married, but there has been a lot of speculation as to whether or not she ever had a romantic relationship. Obviously, this book is a work of fiction. But I wanted it to at least present a version that felt a little bit plausible! But Jane falling for someone who could be her grandfather? Ugh. It's particularly annoying since, prior to that, there are a number of comments suggesting there was no possibility for romance.

However, that's not what I hated about the book. I can accept the somewhat questionable development of their friendship and the unwelcome introduction of romantic feelings. But what I could not abide were the contents of their conversations. Let me explain. As Jane begins reading her writing aloud to Mr. Mansfield, he offers her suggestions for improvement. Prior to the conversation below, he has just told her how she could improve the character of Sir John Middleton in Sense & Sensibility. Then, they have this exchange:
"It is, I think," said Mr. Mansfield, "the sign of a well-crafted novel when the minor characters are as fully realized as the hero and heroine." 
"Wisely spoken, Mr. Mansfield. And I am certainly guilty of giving less life to those whose time upon the page of my novel is but brief. It is a fault I shall endeavor to correct." (6%)
WHAT?! This was very early on in the book, and I was immediately pissed. To have Jane Austen say that she isn't good at writing secondary characters... Are you kidding me?! Jane Austen wrote extensively as a teenager - long before she wrote her first full-length novel. Many of her short stories can still be read today, and anyone who has taken two seconds to read them would see that Austen's wit and keen eye for characters was already on display. They aren't as polished as her later works, but her talent is still evident.

I found the implication that Jane Austen needed the help of an eighty-year-old man to improve and instruct her on writing to be insulting and absolutely ridiculous. Jane Austen is my homegirl, and I will not stand by and see her treated thus. At one point, Mr. Mansfield offers this oh-so-helpful advice on Willoughby:
"I only feel that when Mr. Willoughyby first comes into the lives of the Dashwoods, one already gets the sense that he is a scoundrel. The shock of Miss Marianne's rejection would be so much more powerful if we had no reason to suspect Willoughby of duplicity until his true character is revealed." 
"So Willoughby should come onto the stage as more of a hero?" 
"Exactly. That is precisely how I should put it. I do hope you do not think me impertinent to say so." (11%)
GET REAL. At that point, I was rolling my eyes and feeling stabby. There's no way I could continue to read a book that implied (even if fictionally) that Jane Austen's books were good because this old man helped her make them that way or that some of the best parts were things that he told her to do. It's a stupid premise, and I hated it! Maybe it was supposed to show that Jane finally met someone who was her intellectual match. Unfortunately, it didn't read that way to me. It basically came across like this totally annoying and fictional old man is how Jane Austen became an incredible writer. NOPE NOPE NOPE.

I'm pretty sure that, if I had continued, one of the "mysteries" concerned the authorship of one of Austen's books and the question of whether or not she had plagiarized Mr. Mansfield. I'm sorry, y'all, but I don't have the patience for that kind of nonsense. In my world, that's basically blasphemy. We DO NOT speak so of Austen.

The portions set in the present day were annoying, but a little less so because I obviously didn't care about that heroine (Sophie) outside the context of the novel. However, I did find a number of things totally ridiculous in the modern portion, too. For example, Sophie's beloved uncle dies (from falling down the stairs while reading a book?!), and she immediately recalls a conversation where he told her to never read and walk. She then becomes absolutely convinced that he was murdered. What? It was so out of nowhere that I was flipping back a few pages to see if I had missed something, anything, that would have implied there was foul play and supported Sophie's radical leap to murder. When I realized I'd read everything correctly, I knew I was done.

I never write DNF reviews because I don't want to "review" a book that I didn't finished reading. However, I typically stop reading a book because I'm not hooked on it - not because I actively dislike what I'm reading. Since I had very specific reasons for my DNF and had a lot to say about it, I decided to share my thoughts. However, I can't speak to the novel as a whole because I don't know how it ends. So, I'm not rating it on Goodreads or on my blog. However, as an Austen fan, I thought it was awful. I wanted to punch Mr. Mansfield and toss the book across the room... Maybe the book will pull a Mr. Darcy and improve upon further acquaintance. Unfortunately, I found it barely "tolerable, and not [good] enough to tempt me" to finish and find out. I'm sorry First Impressions, but "you are wasting your time with me.''

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

6 comments:

  1. Ahhh, you make me want to pick up a good book again. I'll have to browse through your blog to see what I should check out. I think Austen is pretty cool--a very clever and imaginative writer. I also tend to put a book down if it doesn't grab me quickly enough :)

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  2. I haven't read this one yet, but have high hopes because I loved The Bookman's Tale so much -- I'm not the Austen expert you are, so I'm not sure I would have noticed these things, but I am glad you pointed them out so I can be more aware of where fiction diverges from fact. I still recommend The Bookman's Tale very highly, but I do now wonder if a Shakespeare buff would have had similar thoughts on that book!

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  3. SPEAK! Based on the portion that you read, your quoted portions seem like a review of Austen's loved works hidden within the context of a story? I realize that it is a crazy thing sometimes to want to critique someone so beloved and well-received as Jane Austen, but it seems that this book is exactly that, whether intended or not. I understand how you feel about DNF reviews so I appreciate your thoughts on this! It is such a shame and I hate this. Lovely cover, though. Bummer, Hannah! High fives to you for honest thoughts.

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  4. Hannah, thanks for your honest review. At least for me, writing negative - and especially DNF - reviews SUCKS, and sometimes it feels like there's little point, and I imagine you probably feel similarly. I was really excited to discover First Impressions when you first featured it, and the synopsis sounded great. We seem to have similar reading tastes so I think I'm going to pass on this one... while I definitely don't know as much about Austen as you, I definitely am a history buff and I will not suspend disbelief on big things like what you've identified here. Again, thanks for the great review!

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  5. Thanks for blogging about your DNF. Reading the description, it sounded like catnip times three for me - Jane Austen, romance and old books. You explained why you stopped so well, I'm going to remove it from my ridiculously large TBR pile. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

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  6. Oh my gosh, I love this...can you be this snarky ALL THE TIME?!! Jane Austen is your homegirl. Don't fucking mess with the system!!

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