by Jo Baker
What an utter and unexpected delight this was. I’m so wary of any books that latch on to Jane Austen’s success, trying to spin their own best seller out of her characters, but this one is a great novel on its own merit. Yes, the story is set in the Bennet household, made famous in the pages of Pride and Prejudice. We do see the ever-recognizable characters we’ve grown to love, but Baker achieves something unique with this book. She’s created new characters that we care about while at the same time giving an added depth to the ones we already knew.
A housemaid, Sarah, has spent most of her life employed at the Bennet home. When a new footman named James appears, their small staff is thrown off balance. Soon everyone’s pasts and futures come into question as the story unfolds.
I love Austen’s novels and I know many people had problems with this book because they didn’t love the light it cast on their beloved characters. For me that wasn’t an issue. I didn’t think that the book changed them in significant ways. Wickham is still a cad; Mr. Collins is insufferable, etc. I think the key is to remember that this is not Pride and Prejudice; it should be treated as a completely different book.
I did feel like the story came undone a bit at the end of the novel. When James leaves Longbourn I lost interest a little and felt like the book never quite found its footing again. The tone of the novel changed dramatically and didn’t seem to synch with the rest of the story. It lost the close knit feel that the world of Longbourn radiates.
I did love reading about the practical side of that time period. Baker did a great job describing the inane duties that any maid would have in a house full of so many women. I also like the way Mary’s quiet role is expanded. Her role in Pride and Prejudice is a small one, but she’d given more depth in this story.
BOTTOM LINE: A great piece of historical fiction. As long as you go into the book remembering that this is NOT an Austen novel, I think you’ll enjoy it. Treat it as a completely separate story instead of as retelling of Pride and Prejudice.