I must admit that the recent penning of Jane Austen hybrids pairing sea monsters and zombies with the beauty of Regency-era England have left me somewhat horrified. Yet their incredible popularity combined with the plethora of Janeite fan-fiction, movie re-makes, and historical fiction re-imaginations of the life of England’s most celebrated female novelist point only towards the undying devotion her large body of devotees holds for this once anonymous wordsmith.
Novelist Beth Patillo’s homage to the celebrated author — Jane Austen Ruined My Life — takes a somewhat different tack, blending equal parts fictional travelogue, mystery, and chick-lit romance in a breezy journey of personal discovery. Emma Grant is a recently divorced Austen scholar who has gathered what few resources she possesses and departed for England on a wild-goose-chase to discover (and hopefully publish) a series of secret and previously unpublished letters from the pen of Jane Austen.
Assigned a series of mysterious Austen-related tasks by a secretive group, Emma finds herself traipsing across the English countryside in search of clues that combined with the revelations in the secret (fictional) letters, cast light on a concealed (and fictional) romance of the author’s. Blaming her penchant for happily-ever-after romances that she believes doomed her marriage, Emma plans to use these letters to vault herself into the academic limelight and rebuild her tragically tarnished career. Emma’s own romantic life also isn’t as straightforward as it seems when an estranged friend reappears in her life, instigating an emotional maelstrom.
Patillo’s work is markedly contemporary and free from any Austen-esque stylings despite her clear esteem of Austen’s character, body of work, and personal correspondences. This delightful read is enhanced by previous familiarity with Austen’s work (nearly a requisite), and a basic grasp on the details of Austen’s life – the better with which to sort fact from fiction. Patillo’s own visits to the historic Austen sites and throughout England are greatly appreciated in her careful sharing of architectural and landscape detail.
As I have noted in my review of a previous Patillo novel, the author does incorporate some references to God and His carefully orchestrated plans, but doesn’t include any signs of a personal relationship with Him or His Son in any of her characters. Emma is the daughter of a ministry family and refers to God as though He is a force of nature, but her decisions and morality are not depicted as being influenced by Him. That being said, Jane Austen Ruined My Life is still a good, clean read, free of both profanity and pre-marital intimacy (barring a few rather non-descript kisses.)
Adam, Emma’s friend from the past, is rather lacking in character, being limited to general friendliness and a variety of grins. This combined with other aspects of the budding romance left me generally unsatisfied by the book's romantic tenor, leaving me more focused upon the focus on Jane Austen and the mystery of her letters. Another male character slips in and out of the story-line in what could have made a great sub-plot but is never developed or fully resolved.
Still, I can credit this work with two late-night reading sessions, it was incredibly difficult to put down. This pleasant diversion for Austen devotees is a pleasantly diversionary way to spend the long, dark, cold winter nights. Readers eager for more in the same vein won’t have long to wait – Patillo’s Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart is newly available through Amazon.