“The day of the ball allowed no tranquility, no peace of mind. What I had hoped would be a time of sweet anticipation turned rapidly into a nightmare,” – Page 102, Chapter 11
I was honestly blown away by how much I liked this book. The first Austen-inspired book to come from Pamela Mingle (who wrote Kissing Shakespeare), and potentially one of my favourite Mary Bennet remakes out, The Pursuit of Mary Bennet is how I like my Austen fiction written. It may even surpass most other Mary Bennet versions just due to how inkeeping it is with what is expected from Mary, and the multiple pursuits happening within the book – emotional/love pursuits, actual chasing pursuits of scandalous characters and a deeper more personal pursuit for a place and meaning in life.
This book came to me in a slightly left-of-centre fashion. A friend from university who I hadn’t spoken to in a long time, Manda Diaz, contacted me via email to let me know she is now working as the children’s book publicist at Harper Collins (an awesome job!). As a result, many books pass her desk, including this one (from Harper Collins’ Morrow imprint), and she was lovely enough to remember The Bennet Sisters blog. We caught up for some brunch and coffee at Sappho Books in Glebe (where I also bagged myself a secondhand Austen-inspired book, review pending!) where she gave me this lovely book. I’m just glad I liked it or things could have been really awkward!
Due out on sale on 26th November this year, the uncorrected proof’s blurb says the following:
For most of her life Mary Bennet has been an object of ridicule. With a notable lack of social graces, she has been an embarrassment to her family on more than one occasion. But lately, Mary has changed. She’s matured and attained a respectable, if somewhat unpolished, decorum. Her peace and contentment are shattered, however, when her sister Lydia turns up – very pregnant and separated from Wickham. Mary and Kitty are hustled off to stay with Jane and her husband. It is there that Mary meets Henry Walsh, whose attentions confound her. Unschooled in the game of love, Mary knows her heart and her future are at risk. Is she worthy of romance or should she take the safer path? In her journey of self-acceptance, she discovers the answer.
The characters basically leap off the page in 3D. While they’re not identical to their original creations, they have been developed on from what Jane Austen left us to work with. Any character changes since Pride and Prejudice are fully explained, and Mary’s character development (into a woman worthy of respect and yet not some shadowy copy of her older sisters) makes sense. That may sound like something every book should do, but since reading contentious The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, I was worried that no one would do this well for such an intriguing character as Mary. Certainly, the temptation for many authors is to do away with her unique, and often irritating, quirks. In this novel she’s different, but retains the characteristics that make her Mary. This is no small feat, and I really applaud Ms Mingle for managing to do this. One other book that carried this off, but in a completely different way, was Jennifer Paynter with her Mary Bennet book. If you’re a Mary fan, it’s worthwhile picking up all of these spin offs to see just what I mean about how some fall down with their character development.
A moderate but acceptable 320 pages, it doesn’t drag on or cut off too abruptly. There’s a good spattering of letters throughout, we see what most of the characters are thinking, and we cover off on just enough locations to keep things interesting. In fact, the storyline is so very Jane Austen. While children are mentioned more than I ever think a Regency era book would cover, for the modern tastes it works well. We see Jane and Lizzy happily married, a disaster relationship with an unfaithful Wickham and an unfaithful Lydia, and Kitty looking to get hitched. In the middle of it all is Mary. She’s now more accomplished although, to the point of slightly irritating, self-deprecating. She’s clever, has read more widely (under the instruction of Mr Bennet now Elizabeth is no longer home) and it’s quickly obvious that there’s a love interest thrown into the match.
One thing I was very happy with was the research and knowledge of the era obviously behind this book. Having recently read Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends I learned that breakfast was served on the sideboard, and included hot chocolate and similar foods, and it was good to see this reflected in the book. This is just one example, but there were many others that I read and then thought ‘she’s spot on’ about the way it would have been (traveling, for instance).
The new male love-interest characters don’t shine as brightly as our evolved Mary does, but they provide interesting plot twists and some rather cute dialogue. I also adored the part where Mary is carried over the water – it reminded me of a similar scene between Angel and Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (another personal favourite and a book that means a lot to me).
I did feel that Ms Mingle avoided Lizzy’s character quite a bit. Whether that was intentional, perhaps as Lizzy tends to steal plot lines and people’s hearts (in fact, it’s explained by Pamela Mingle in the back of the book that Mary is often overshadowed by her sisters), or not, I felt a tiny pang of regret about it as I have always adored the amusing dialogue in Pride and Prejudice that is usually driven by Lizzy’s wit. I really did enjoy the glimpses we were given of her relationship with Darcy, and the affection between them and the balance made sense. Jane has also been evolved a bit, she is a bit more witty and willing to have an opinion, which increased how much I like her – I may be off base but I think the author really likes her as a character. Kitty is on the tipping point of changing through most of the book – reverting in and out of her old ways and still a little man-hungry. The dynamic between her and Mary was fascinating.
For those of you looking to secure it for November (and I certainly recommend it) then look out for ISBN 978-0-06-227424-3 and it retails at $14.99. A nice extra touch are the questions and comments for book group discussions at the back of the book, although there’s plenty to talk about even without these snippets!
Are you keen to get your hands on the book? Is Mary a secret favourite character of yours?