Review: “Austenland” by Shannon Hale

For the love of books

… fantasy is not practice for what is real—fantasy is the opiate of women.

~ excerpt from “The End of Day 21” in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Jane Austen has come a long way from being an undervalued female living in nineteenth century England.  A writer who understood relationships, society, and the language of wit better than most people do during their own lifetimes, Austen’s characters and stories have become the foundation of romance and continue to fascinate readers.  Women are especially drawn to her male heroes, who seem to be wonderful mirages of men who could never exist in real life, being too perfect.  However, Shannon Hale has the solution to these hopeless infatuations and ideals in Austenland, her smart and biting retort to the phrase “fantasy is a safe escape from reality.”

For the first time ever, Hale casts off the bindings of young adult fantasy literature and concocts a storyline rooted in the modern world with reality standing close by.  Her main character, Jane Hayes, has a familiar obsession with the lead character from Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy.  Unfortunately, Mr. Darcy was the figment of an author’s imagination, not the reflected image of a real-life man.  The unhappy result of this fancy is that Jane is letting her expectations constantly cloud every relationship she has, her fantasy man destroying any possibility of happiness.  Happily, a knowing benefactor sends Jane packing for treatment—only this “health resort” is Austenland, a retreat that is set entirely in the world of Jane Austen.

Here, women step out of their modern selves and climb into another world where meeting an ideal man is not so impossible, even if it is highly unlikely when everyone is play-acting.  Nevertheless, Jane is determined to rid herself of all obstacles, including this Darcy-sickness, standing in the way of real love.  She is going to say good-bye for good to all Austen men no matter how silly and nonsensical Austenland appears to be, even to an Austen fan like herself.  That’s exactly what happens, and Jane Hayes is such a confident, likeable heroine despite her uncertainty about her true desires.

At first, Austenland seems to be little more than a vacation from work and modern living.  However, as the story progresses, Jane is made very aware of how Austenland itself is deceptive by being formulated with an unsatisfactory game of pretense.  Women go there to immerse themselves in dreams that can never come true; “true love” is a ridiculous idea when life in Austenland truly is a stage with all people being professional actors.  This novel by the author is very unusual due to the fact that three weeks in Austenland are a virtual slap in the face, begging women to start seriously contemplating what the natures of their fantasies are.

Amid all those daydreams of ideal romance is reluctance to recognize reality for what it is—to accept that no matter how hard one imagines an idyllic existence, it is both impossible and untrue on account of a fantasy’s perfection.  Since life and people are continually proving how imperfect they are, fantasy is merely the mind’s indulgence in wistful thinking.  Aside from Hale’s remarkable perception of female mentality, she uses artistic comparisons and illustrations in the text of Austenland, a direct reflection of the main character being an artist.  The visionary Austenland “theme park” itself is probable for modern fans of the nineteenth century, considering that numerous people populate theme parks around the world already.  However, the excitement it distributes to its temporary residents comes more from experiencing another lifetime in another time period, a consistent “time machine” that is still firmly based on British soil and in common time.

Austenland is welcome insight into the many angles of romance and the importance of companionship, a clear analysis of relationships and how each must have fidelity, trust, and honesty at its core.  With an intriguing feministic character at the helm of a witty descent into a copy of Jane Austen’s environment, Austenland is a distracting literary treat that turns over innocent hypotheses and makes fantasy more laughable and enjoyable than ever by keeping reality, and emotions, in check.

Original review: Part 1: Jane Austen would have been pleased with ‘Austenland’Part 2: Jane Austen would have been pleased with ‘Austenland’Part 3: Jane Austen would have been pleased with ‘Austenland’, Examiner.com

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