Review and author Q&A: The Romance Diaries, Jenna Austen

“…he immediately decides that Stella is a spoilt rich airhead. And Stella thinks he’s nothing more than a cold indie snob.” – Back cover

This Pride and Prejudice-inspired book came to me in the mail from my friend at Harper Collins. I’ve been sitting on this Q&A and review for a while trying to find a spare hour to post it up, so here it finally is! ISBN: 978-0-7333-3153-4 you can also get it as an eBook, and it’s certainly working the social media hard. It’s also only just recently come out, so luckily you should be able to go and grab it – especially as the author is an Australian writer (unusual for Austen inspired books).

‘The Romance Diaries: Stella’ isn’t exactly my cup of literary tea, but it might be yours. I’m certainly not the intended audience (it’s a young adult/children’s book) so I had to really remember that when reading through. I, personally, have a huge distaste for overly colloquial writing (e.g. “Being famous cos your mum was passionate and brilliant? Crap.”), but it certainly has its place and I think it works well for the intended audience of this book. The storyline is fun, if far removed from Pride and Prejudice, and it’s an interesting use of a journal to tell the story with, which I think resonates well with younger readers.

Essentially, Stella Fletcher is a teen left in charge of a massive media company (Fletcher Media) after her mother, Mandy, recently passed away. Struggling with her mother’s passing and taking on her new role in magazines, which she doesn’t particularly care for, intern Alex Dudek enters the scene to help out on Besties magazine. Making her feel offbeat and giddy, she quickly puts her foot in her mouth with him and screws things up.  What follows is a nice rom-com style quick read that should have adult readers done in less than a few hours. There are some lovely details (Seagull Island is gorgeous-sounding) and some very confusing coincidences (all the characters ending up on this island no one has heard of all at once) but there’s a little bit of awkward dialogue in places.

The presentation of the magazine industry got to me a little bit, as does the fact that she effortlessly becomes an editor near the end and has so little care (or knowledge) about the role. Working in this industry myself I can honestly tell you that it’s not how it is presented! At the same time, I know this won’t bother most readers and it helps keep things simple so we can get to the heart of the story. The plot lines you are expecting to get exciting (the scent of betrayal hangs in the air at one point) usually quickly taper off and the overall theme is quite happy and optimistic. Perhaps, due to my own more cynical persuasion, I was sitting there waiting for her younger sister to try and takeover Fletcher Media or betray her, or turn out to be an imposter. In saying that, as most readers of The Bennet Sisters know – I’m all about the sisterhood, hence the name of the blog! When Stella was originally noted as a single child, I was a little put off as the way the sisters interact has always been one of my favourite Pride and Prejudice elements, so I was thankful for this choice to give her a sister.

One thing Jenna Austen (pen name for Sophie Masson) has done very well is to present a storyline that doesn’t replicate that of Pride and Prejudice. While those of us reading it for its connection may become sorely disappointed when very few of the characters directly correlate, I quickly enjoyed the small head-nods to Jane Austen and the way the feelings of the characters mirrored those in Pride and Prejudice so well. In fact, it was nice to see the Mr Darcy/Lizzy personas mixed up between Stella and ‘The Dude’. He is reserved and hard to read, however she is the one who is indirectly insulting, is in the position of power and yet, ultimately, has to come to Lizzy’s realisations that she has been wrong or judgmental. She is a little bratty, and quite hard to like until mid-way through the book when she starts being a little less selfish. The word ‘prejudice’ comes up a number of times, and it’s fun to see Pride and Prejudice directly mentioned in the text. I hope that younger readers who pick this up first will then head out and get a copy of Pride and Prejudice.

It will suit young readers, maybe around the 11/12 mark, especially in the way it handles Facebook, Pinterest and other younger tween-style ways of communicating. It also has a good overall moral to the story, a nice happy conclusion and a general fluffy-happy feeling to it despite a broken down family, her mother’s death, professional confusion and a number of other blunders.

Ms Masson answered some questions for The Bennet Sisters about the book and some of the queries I had about it:

Tell us a bit about yourself and why you wrote this book?

Under my real name of Sophie Masson, I’m a well-known author, having published lots of novels for children, young adults and adults, and I’ve also written under another pseudonym–Isabelle Merlin–creating four popular YA romantic thrillers under that name. Isabelle Merlin books were inspired by Gothic thriller- romances from Jane Eyre to Rebecca to Mary Stewart’s books. As Jenna Austen, I wanted to explore another kind of romance, romantic comedy/drama that is, as exemplified by the queen of them all, Jane Austen. I wanted to capture a similar feel–rich in character, story, feeling, and archetypal patterns–yet also make it very much my own, updating and interpreting in my own style. The Romance Diaries: Stella is the second of my Romance Diaries title, and is inspired of course by Jane Austen’s most beloved and popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, just as the first book, The Romance Diaries: Ruby, was inspired by Emma.

How long has this taken you to write and what was the process like?

Stella took me about two-three months to write–I’d had the idea some months before and worked it through in my head before I sat down to write. It was a fabulous book to write–Stella simply was so alive and her voice was so clear and distinct to me that I felt almost as though she was writing it!

I understand it is part of a series – can you explain how it fits in overall?

Stella is number two in the Romance Diaries series, which are all inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. The first book, Ruby, as I mentioned, which features a young girl who thinks herself to be a real matchmaker, is inspired by Emma. (Ruby also has a theory about real-life romance which contrasts the ‘Jane Eyre’ style to the ‘Jane Austen’  style, and she tries to fit people in according to her literary formula!) The books are quite separate stories but there is a small link between them: a book publicist named Jo May, who is Ruby’s sister, makes a cameo appearance in Stella! I’m planning two more in the Romance Diaries series: Mia, which is inspired by Northanger Abbey and features a girl who is obsessed with vampire and Gothic novels; and Lily, inspired by Sense and Sensibility, about twin sisters who couldn’t be more different! Each book will have one of those subtle links to the others. Incidentally, the reason why I chose to write the book under the pseudonym of Jenna Austen is that it telegraphs immediately(and cheekily!) what the influence is, whilst at the same time having a distinct Romance Diaries identity separate from my other books under my own name. (That was also the reason for the Isabelle Merlin pen-name).

Which elements of Pride and Prejudice are in this story, and which did you change?

What I really aim to do with this book, and indeed the others in this series, is work from an inspiration but not write sequels or straight adaptations–I am not trying to write like Jane Austen, but rather to capture that timeless spirit of both humour and melancholy, great characterisation and good story, romance and observation. So in Stella, the elements of Pride and Prejudice that strongly influence are: the central theme of how people misunderstand each other through both pride and prejudice, and how even when they’re drawn to each other, they may not realise it at first and lurch from drawing closer to quarreling again; the sense of secrets (in Darcy’s case) and also the sense of vastly different social backgrounds. Also I’ve told the story from Stella’s point of view just as Pride and Prejudice, though of course in the third person, invites us to see things through Lizzie’s perspective. There’s also other elements such as orphaned siblings and also family dramas–and a strong sense of character for both the main male and female characters, but also more minor ones.

I have of course changed many things–such as very much mixing up the characteristics we see in Lizzie and Darcy–with Stella and Alex, I’ve created characters who in some ways invert the Pride and Prejudice archetypes. Yet they are also ways in which they stay close to that–for instance, in the fact that Alex is reserved, keeps things back–and it’s Stella who jumps to conclusions–And I’ve very much changed the family situation–though you may notice that the sisterly closeness of Lizzie and Jane is replicated in some ways! There is no exact equivalent to the sub-plots involving Mr Wickham,  Mr Bingley, Mr Collins or Lady Catherine de Burgh of course, but there are various elements which remind you of aspects of those. This is not as I mentioned earlier an attempt to replicate Pride and Prejudice, but to tell an original story for young readers, warmly and light-heartedly inspired by that great work.

Who did you write this for?

The book is aimed at tween and teen readers (ie from about 10-14). I certainly hope it will help get them interested in Jane Austen–that when they do come to read Pride and Prejudice, for instant, they’ll remember Stella and have that sense of familiarity which I think can help kids get to love the classics. Adults have also read it and enjoyed it, as well as the earlier book.

Which Jane Austen character are you most like and why?

I did one of those Jane Austen Heroine quizzes once which told me that I was most like Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility! But another told me I was like Emma and yet another like Lizzie..I don’t know, really. As a reader, I respond most I to Lizzie in P and P and Catherine in Northanger Abbey. I also love Darcy, I must say!

In the book, Stella seems to encapsulate quite a bit of Mr Darcy – did you intentionally mix the features of the different characters together?

Yes, I did. I thought it would be an interesting take on the archetypal pattern–and I think it worked pretty well. Hope readers think so too!

Why do you think the magazine world is a good equivalent to a Regency village?

It’s an enclosed world too–very much a hothouse yet also with links to the outside world. And it has all its particular protocols and rules.

One thing that struck me was the relationship Stella had with her younger sister – why was this important to add to the book?

I felt that this was an aspect of Pride and Prejudice–the sisterly closeness between Lizzie and Jane especially (and also other sisters in Austen’s work)–that I really wanted in there. But as Stella is an orphan and apparently without siblings, to introduce an unexpected sister was also a good plot point. Stella is lonely and isolated in many ways–Chloe changed that a lot. I really loved writing their relationship!

Where can Australian and international buyers purchase the book?

Any good bookstore as well as online. You can get it in paperback or as an e-book. Have a look here.

What else should we be keeping an eye out for from you?

Those next two Romance Diaries, I hope–watch this space! And also, the latest novel under my own name, Scarlet in the Snow(Random House Australia), a romantic thriller based on fairytale this time(in this case, the Russian version of Beauty and the Beast.) It’s part of a fairytale series I’m writing, of which the first was Moonlight and Ashes.

Overall, a really good way to get your tween readers (daughters, friends, students etc anyone?) into Pride and Prejudice by more subtle means, and something that will be interesting for Pride and Prejudice fans as well. For more information on the book, check out the Jenna Austen website, Romance Diaries Facebook page and Pinterest and Sophie Masson’s website.

Have you read it? Keen to grab it for any tweens you know of?

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1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Q&A

One response to “Review and author Q&A: The Romance Diaries, Jenna Austen

  1. Pingback: Review of Stella and interview with me on the Bennet Sisters blog | Jenna Austen Writes

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