Monday, March 7, 2016

Book Review: All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

7. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Professor Amy Smith takes a year of sabbatical to travel throughout South America and read Jane Austen novels with local book groups along the way. Her purpose is to determine whether South Americans relate to Austen as much or more than Brits and Americans, due to their current cultural similarities and differences with Austen's time. In my mind, it's a strange proposition in the first place and doesn't seem to make much sociological sense, but Smith cites Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran as inspiration, and it's clear she wants an excuse to both read Jane Austen and travel in South America for a year, so she decides to make a book of it.

Honestly, the most interesting parts of the book to me were the chances to "travel" to places I've never been. Smith also makes a point of learning about the literature of each country she visits, which was interesting to me. However, I was disappointed that only three of Austen's books are covered, and my favorite, Persuasion, isn't even mentioned. Also, a couple of Smith's attitudes about Austen really irked me. Not because there's anything wrong with her opinion, but I strongly disagree with her! First, it's clear that Pride and Prejudice is her favorite Austen book. Fine. I love Pride and Prejudice too and it's indisputably the most popular. But Smith goes so far as to say flat out that Sense and Sensibility is not as good. A reader in Mexico asks her if Sense and Sensibility is as good as the P&P movie, and Smith responds in the following manner:

No, I was thinking. No it's not. "Yes, it is," I said. "But it's...different. It's a little slower at the beginning." In other words, no, it's not. (Smith 73)
I like Sense and Sensibility more than Pride and Prejudice. Although I love Elizabeth, I identify far more with Elinor, and I like Elinor and Marianne's relationship far more than Elizabeth and Jane's. Furthermore, S&S has the decided advantage of not containing any insufferable Mr. Darcy's--which brings me to my next issue with Smith.

Smith, somewhat forcefully, seems determined to incorporate her own love story into the book. (SPOILERS AHEAD). Unfortunately, just like most Austen-inspired fiction writers, she decides she needs a Mr. Darcy. And gosh darn if she doesn't get him! Although she has an incredibly sweet lover in Mexico who nurses her through dengue fever, she throws him aside for an unpleasantly tempered bookseller in Buenos Aires. Of course, her love affair is up to her and I have no doubt that, as she claims, she's more satisfied with her choice. Towards the end of the book, she asks herself, "Which one is Mr. Darcy...and which is Mr. Bingley?" (350-351). She describes the two men:

Mr. Bingley is relentlessly cheerful. He looks for the best in everyone...The right fit for Mr. Bingley was sweet, good-natured, passive Jane...[with her Mr. Darcy] I could be my neurotic, judgmental, and cranky self...because he was prideful, combative, and grumpy himself (351).
I can't pretend to understand. If I had to choose between Darcy and Bingley, I would pick Bingley every time. Better a man who's cheerful and kind than prideful and grumpy, no matter how understanding of others' grumpiness. If that makes me a Jane, so be it! But I don't think it works that way anyway. Even an Elizabeth could get along with an even-tempered man, and fortunately, we don't have to choose between kindness and intelligence, generosity and the other qualities that are supposed to redeem Darcy.

Overall, an interesting read, but Austen fans of my persuasion: prepare to be bemused. Darcy fans--get ready to swoon, I guess.

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