Sunday, May 8, 2016

REVIEW: Dear Emma by Katie Heaney

The Book: Dear Emma

The Author: Katie Heaney

Genre: New Adult, I'd say. It focuses on college-aged characters, romantic entanglements, and female friendship in a contemporary, social media-fueled environment.

How I Found It: It caught my eye in Target's books section. On the offchance it was Austen-related I picked it up, and once I found out it was indeed Austen-inspired, decided to give it a try.

My Review: Heaney decided to do something interesting with this book, and something I'd like to see done more often in modernizations: instead of focusing this Emma-inspired story on a modern Emma Woodhouse, she took Harriet and put her in the spotlight! "Emma" is the pseudonym Harriet uses to write an advice column for her college newspaper, anonymous to all but her two roommates and her editor. Even without a true Emma Woodhouse character to play off of, Harriet is still the introvert without much dating experience that she would likely be if Austen's story really were brought into the modern world.

When I say this story is Emma-inspired, I mean that the inspiration is really just a light sprinkle. There is no Knightley, no Elton, no Frank Churchill, none of the basic plot or characters of Emma, essentially. What Heaney chose to do, she writes in the supplemental materials at the back of the book, is to basically take some of the elements of Harriet and Emma's relationship in the original story, put them in a modern context, and run with it. Specifically, what must it feel like for Harriet to be lead to fall in love with several men, only to consistently have those men choose your effervescent, beautiful best friend over you?

Heaney's Harriet is put into this position by Keith, a classmate she is attracted to after a fun road trip that was more or less a date. Keith seems to be attracted to her, too, but when he abruptly stops contacting her, Harriet is confused, annoyed... and obsessed. After consistently stalking his social media accounts, she finds out he's started dating someone else... her beautiful new work study coworker, Remy. Unsure of where she ever stood with Keith, Harriet never lets on to her interest in him, and so she and Remy become friends. But when Remy writes to Dear Emma for relationship advice, what's a girl to do?

This book was a two-star read for me. It wasn't absolutely horrible by any means, but it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been, either. While I try as hard as I can to evaluate a book on its own merits, in the Austen community that's sometimes hard to do without judging it by both Austen's original framework and by other adaptations that have come before this one. I'll try to break down what my problems were with this book by examining what I felt Heaney could have done that other adaptations have or have not.

  • Leaning on some of Austen's existing characterizations and relationships might have helped flesh out the characters more. Because this is one of the loosest Austen-inspireds I've ever read, it's also the only one where I've ever felt like the author didn't take enough inspiration from Austen. I so liked what Heaney wanted to do here! Right on to focusing on Harriet, an introverted Austen character, as opposed to the extroverted and fearless Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet! But... well, she failed to make Harriet all that interesting. She borrowed a bit of Emma's backstory: mom dies young, and Harriet is raised by a single father. Except, unlike in Emma, Harriet's father doesn't figure into the plot or Harriet's characterization at all. We get one telephone call between them, and that's it. This was a failing of the Pemberley Digital-adapted Emma Approved as well: they specifically mentioned feeling as though Emma's relationship with Knightley was more interesting and more appealing to their millennial audience, thus choosing to focus on that relationship instead of including Emma's relationship with her father as well. Given that this was Heaney's audience as well, I think she also felt the urge to stick with her millennial-aged characters, and that was to the book's detriment. Emma's relationship to Mr. Woodhouse is one of the things that helps show readers she isn't the shallow, self-absorbed creature we sometimes think she is! I felt the lack of depth to Harriet and the rest of the characters keenly, and I think looking more closely at Austen's characterizations--what the characters talk about, how they spend their time, who they spend their time with--really could have helped Heaney make her characters as memorable or at least as interesting as Austen's.
  • The characters just didn't have much depth, period. It wasn't just that Heaney didn't include enough characterization from Austen. It was that she didn't include much characterization at all. For almost the entire book, no reason is given as to why Harriet decided to become an advice columnist. Why does giving advice to people appeal to her? Why do the people on her campus trust her column so much? A male coworker of Harriet's reads the column at one point, so it clearly has a degree of popularity beyond the people writing to it for advice. Why that is... well, we don't know. Likewise, interesting tidbits are brought out about other characters and then never explored: Remy mentions seeing therapists frequently over her lifetime, and thus has valuable advice to give Harriet about self-esteem, but why she's seen therapists is never gone into. The details Heaney does choose to focus on were sometimes bizarre. I know that one of Harriet's roommates puts loose hairs on the shower wall while showering so they won't clog the drain, but barely anything else about her. Her roommates were also so interchangeable I sometimes had to flip back a couple pages to remember which one was which. Compared to the distinct and memorable characterizations of, say, Clueless, I felt that this book was lacking. And speaking of Clueless, Keith here is basically a Josh clone without the endearing parts: must all college-age Knightleys be philosophy majors?
  • The book didn't pass the Bechdel Test by much, and I felt the female characters were limited. As pointed out in this excellent takedown of the awful Becoming Jane, all of Jane Austen's novels pass the Bechdel Test! At some point in all of Austen's novels, female characters discuss something other than a man, whether that's another woman, an accomplishment like drawing or playing the pianoforte, being a governess, novels or poetry... the list goes on. Heaney's female characters talked about boys, and alcohol, and school, and... that was about it. Boy-talk dominated most of the book, as Harriet obsesses over Keith, and I wished I got the sense that these girls had more to their lives than what boys they were interested in. Now that some time has passed since I read the book, one of the only Test-passing conversations I remember in it is Remy and Harriet talking about a humorous anecdote involving a fire drill.
  • I just wanted Harriet to move on from Keith already. Harriet and Keith go on one outing that could constitute a date, after knowing each other for a short period of time, and make out once. That Harriet was so hung up on him for almost the entire book made me sigh. I wish Harriet had figured it out earlier that he just wasn't that into her! She slammed Keith and men like him in her advice column for so easily shifting from girl to girl, but until she finally came face-to-face with him, I really didn't feel like she was over him. While Heaney's initial conceit sounded fantastic, I don't think she built up the relationship between Harriet and Keith enough to make me feel like Harriet was right to be upset that he stopped contacting her. An explanation would have been nice, and his behavior was a jerk move, sure, but you hung out and made out one time. Move on!
  • Lack of diversity. None of the characters are anything but straight, and there's no mention of there being any characters of color--two things modern Austen-inspired fiction really has to work on. However, I was very glad that Harriet, while she isn't a virgin, is relatively inexperienced with sex. I get tired of most TV shows presenting every single teenage character as embarking on sexual relationships while they're still in high school and having tons of experience by the time they're in college. Characters who are virgins or inexperienced are a rarity and I'm grateful to Heaney for providing one, a character those of us who are introverted and not as experienced with the opposite sex can relate to.
While Heaney's book wasn't all bad--it was an easy read that I found enjoyable on a train commute, and her idea was original, if poorly executed--I wanted so much more from this book than I got. If she had focused more on Harriet and Remy becoming friends more than Harriet's relationships with her two interchangeable roommates, I would have appreciated it more. I felt shortchanged of the Harriet/Emma dynamic that Heaney seemed to want to explore based on her initial conceit for the book. As a result, I don't think any readers coming to this for the Emma-inspired portions will be satisfied... but neither can I recommend this as a book on its own, as it felt too undercooked to be satisfying. If you're at all interested, pick it up from your local library. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

REVIEW: Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

The Book: Somewhere in France

The Author: Jennifer Robson

Genre: Historical fiction, set from just before the outbreak of World War I (July 1914) to after its end (January 1919, following the worst of the Spanish flu epidemic in England).

How I Found It: A friend read it early last year, and though I haven't read very much historical fiction, I was intrigued by the premise. Later that year I happened on Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, a major inspiration for this novel, and became intensely interested in women's war work and the War itself.

My Review: "Ah, don't begin to fuss!" wailed Kitty. "If a woman began to worry in these days because her husband hadn't written to her for a fortnight! Besides, if he'd been anywhere interesting, anywhere where the fighting was really hot, he'd have found some way of telling me instead of just leaving it as 'Somewhere in France.' He'll be all right." (opening lines of Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier [1918])

Robson didn't draw her inspiration from West's novel, but it's impossible not to put her work in context with other accounts, fictional and not, of the war I've been exposing myself to for the past year. Women of those fraught days during the war and after universally experienced uncertainty, heartbreak... and profound social change.

The novel's heroine, Lilly Ashford, finds the war to be a chance to make the changes in her life she's always wanted. Lilly has longed for an education and the chance to do more with her life than to marry young and devote her life to having children and keeping house, as a woman of her class is expected to do. Helping her in this fight was Robbie Fraser, her older brother's oldest friend, who inspired her to fight for a governess to give her a broader education than a lady's normal accomplishments.

With England on the edge of war, Lilly and Robbie's paths cross again at a ball at her family's grand estate (or one of them, anyway). There are obvious sparks, but Robbie comes from an impoverished background, and Lilly's parents are staunchly against her attraction to him. When the war breaks out, taking Robbie to work behind the lines as a surgeon and Lilly's beloved brother Edward to the front lines, Lilly seizes her chance to do something with her life. She defies her parents' wishes and breaks with them in order to join the WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) as an ambulance driver. Luck later puts her in the way of a chance to join Robbie at the 51st Casualty Clearing Station in France. With women and men bound by strict laws against fraternization, and their days dominated by blood, muck, and the seemingly interminable horrors of the war, Lilly and Robbie's attraction might well be doomed. Constantly in harm's way, horrified and exhausted by their everyday experiences, the would-be lovers struggle to stay afloat in a time of great uncertainty.

Anyone reading this review who's familiar with Downton Abbey will immediately recognize the similarities: yes, the plot is extremely similar to Sybil's path in Series 2, between her joining the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment, the organization with which Vera Brittain served) and being in love with Branson, who wasn't of her class. And yes, the cover model looks disturbingly like Michelle Dockery. I found myself a little caught up in comparing the show and the book as I read the first portion of the novel, which didn't feel any different from the hundreds of variations on this story I've seen before.

But my slight reservations with the book's resemblance to that story dissipated as the book went on--after all, these stories, written one hundred years after the fact, simply reflect the realities many women lived at those times, so any apparent similarities simply stem from the stories imitating life. I found Robson's carefully-crafted story and characters engaging. There were several things I truly liked about Robson's take on women's war work and the horrors of the war:

  • The novel passes the Bechdel test several times over. Alison Bechdel, author of noted graphic memoir Fun Home, is credited as the creator of this test, in which a work's diversity can be evaluated partly by whether it features two named female characters who discuss something other than a man. This isn't always an easy feat given the time period--Lilly and her peers in the WAAC are women of marriageable age, and when they're both surrounded by wounded men and finally free to openly discuss sex and relationships, of course some talk will be devoted to men. However, Charlotte, Lilly's former governess and now a friend, and Lilly have lengthy discussions about the war work available to women, and Lilly and her friends in the WAAC discuss dancing, their upbringings, vehicle maintenance, etc. Lilly's friends are also of different social classes than she is, but they become genuinely friendly, cooperate and work together to help the men under their care.
  • The novel portrays sex as an experience both the man and the woman should find pleasurable. Robson does not shy away from the reality that women and men engaged in casual sexual relationships during the war; at one point it is mentioned women have been dismissed from the WAAC for becoming pregnant. She manages to show the depth of ignorance of Lilly and some of her peers about sex and male anatomy, but treats the subject with respect and delicacy. Readers who prefer no sexual situations in their books should know there is a sex scene spanning several chapters, but it is in no way lewd. Rather, it was one of the more tender and equitable sexual experiences I've ever read in a novel. Lilly's sisters embody typical upper-class women of the period, lying back and thinking of England, whereas Lilly and her peers are allowed the hope of experiencing sex with a partner who truly cares about their pleasure as well as his own.
  • Lilly's relationships to several characters are explored in detail and help to flesh out her character. We get to read about Lilly's relationships with Robbie, her brother Edward, her former governess Charlotte, and her fellow driver Constance (and to a lesser degree, Bridget and Annie, two of the other ambulance drivers). I did wish that once Lilly was at the 51st, we could have had a few more letters from Edward and Charlotte in order to know how they were faring. Still, Lilly's relationships with each character helped to illuminate different aspects of her personality: stubborness, compassion, a fierce desire to help others.
  • Lilly's relationship with Robbie does not dominate the book. A novel set during a war where two central characters are in a relationship risks focusing on the characters' romance while ignoring the horrific realities of the war. Robson manages to balance Lilly and Robbie's burgeoning romance with the reality of working in a CCS: the constant danger of being shelled, the arduousness of driving the same route several times a day to pick up the wounded, the terrors awaiting any soldier who gets lost in no man's land. This is rightfully classified as a novel, rather than a romance; the romance isn't the sole focus, which I appreciated, as that would have diminished the feeling that Lilly and Robbie were living through a period of great fear and anguish.
My small quibbles with the book only have to do with Robson leaving several plot threads dangling in order to pick up the subsequent stories in her two following novels, After the War is Over and the just-released Moonlight Over Paris. However, since I will be reading both books incredibly soon due to how much I enjoyed this one, I can't complain too much! I was pleased with Robson's evocative portrayal of the war and hope that her novel will help others on the way to learning more about the role of women during World War I. (I particularly enjoyed the interview with her historian father at the back of the book; I am greatly interested in his nonfiction now.) I highly recommend Robson's book both to anyone with an interest in World War I and to anyone who's interested in learning a little more about it, with the help of interesting, layered female characters.