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Chick-lit at its finest

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo. Guideposts, 2009. 288 pages

Art and literary whodunits are so plentiful these days that they might nearly constitute their own genre. The DaVinci Code is the best-selling of these works, but anyone who visits a library or bookstore can find a whole tribe of detectives purporting to trace missing letters, paintings, or books of Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and others. Possession, A.S. Byatt’s superb novel of such sleuthing with its comparison of the Victorian to the post-modern, involves missing letters, poetry with clues, and nuanced speech. Missing medieval manuscripts, often with magical powers, are also popular topics for such fictions, ranging from The Name of the Rose to The Rule of Four.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find in Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life (Guideposts, ISBN 13-978-08249-4771-2, $14.99) another such literary mystery. Here a young American, Emma Grant, still grieving and angry over her recently ended marriage and her seemingly ruined academic career, flies to London to search out some missing letters written by Jane Austen. Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot of 22 Stanhope Gardens has contacted Emma, hinted at the letters, and invited her to come for a visit. Once Emma makes contact with Mrs. Parrot in London, the older woman reveals one authentic letter, then gives Emma a series of tasks to perform, all of them having to do with Austen’s life, before she will produce the other letters.

In the meantime, Emma has also met Adam Clark, an old friend who broke away from her after her marriage. Adam, also a professor, helps Emma find her way about London, shares meals with her, and slowly falls in love with her once again. Together they complete the last tasks set for Emma by Mrs. Parrot.

As she draws closer to the Austen letters and the band of women who have guarded these letters since Jane Austen’s death, thus respecting the author‘s last wishes to keep her private life separate from her books, Emma feels more and more empathy for Austen herself. An Austen fanatic since adolescence, Emma had begun blaming Austen and her dauntless heroines for deceiving her, for leading her to believe in happiness and dreams. Just as she is about to give up her dreams and her love of Austen, however, Emma instead finds herself attracted to the Austen of the missing letters, the woman who lost the man she loved to a storm at sea and who rejected another suitor offering her everything she desired but love.

On her quest for clues and academic glory, Emma not only falls in love with Adam, but also must face Edward, her ex-husband, again. In their marriage, Edward had continued his philandering with graduate students (Emma’s surprise at this adultery in turn surprises even the casual reader, as Emma was herself at one point the graduate student carrying on the affair). When apprehended by Emma, Edward had then helped support the graduate student in question in a plagiarism charge Emma had brought against her. Near the end of Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Edward comes crawling back to Emma, professing his love but in reality wanting her to sign a release stating that she won’t sue the university for her unjust termination.

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Jane Austen Ruined My Life should appeal to Austen fans and to those who know little about the revered author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While Patillo herself is an impassioned amateur student of Austen‘s life and work, she writes to the readers through Emma with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Her quests take her, and us, to some of the places Austen lived. Her encounter with Austen’s desk in a cottage in Chawton perhaps best reveals Patillo’s love of Austen and her ability to pass that love to us through her own writing:

“Here, at this table, Jane Austen had risen from the ruins of her life like a phoenix from the ashes. She’d written or rewritten almost all of her novels on this tiny bit of wood, at this wonderful window overlooking a busy village street...

“In spite of all the distractions, she’d created her masterpiece with nothing more than paper, pen, and ink. Virginia Woolf was famous for saying that any woman who wanted to be a writer needed to have five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own. Austen had possessed neither of these things, and yet somehow she had outshone authors with far more worldly advantages.”

Jane Austen Ruined My Life undoubtedly belongs to that genre of fiction known these days as “chick-lit,” and should indeed please a wide audience of female readers: those who want a good detective story with a female protagonist, those who enjoy fiction set in England, those who treasure all things Austen. Although males in general may be disinclined to pick up such a book — just as, judging from their readership, they are disinclined to pick up Jane Austen’s novels — those men interested in women (which should include, we may assume, a goodly portion) might gain some insights by such an adventure. Here, for example, in one small incident Patillo reveals both a woman’s sense of dress and her modern conflict with the world of fashion. Visiting Chanel, Emma comes across a dress which she calls The One:

“Trying the thing on only made it worse. It fit perfectly, and the pink was the perfect shade for my skin tone. For the first time in almost a year, I felt pretty. Desirable. Worthy of attention. I knew that I was not supposed to invest my self-esteem in fashion, but when a dress made you look that good, how could you not?”

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