Many have attempted to bring a modern version of Ms Austen’s works into life (remember Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a commendable work?). Few have succeeded. I wanted a break from fantasy and thrillers. So, when I saw this book on Netgalley, I requested an ARC with great curiosity. The book was a delight. I am grateful to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah for approving a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review.
Three sisters live in modern day America, have ambitions and aspirations like any modern women. Their wealthy father gets into legal troubles and the sisters lose their life of privilege, standing a test of time and will. They do not break. Instead, they take matters into their own sensible hands and start their very own tea business. The eldest one deals with unemployment, younger one with a sudden and drastic change in her situation, and the second sister forms the bridge between the two phases of life. Eventually, the sisters move to Austin, Texas, upon receiving an enthusiastic response from their deceased mother’s cousin. Life beings here on a different note. A small guest house in a property owned by the wealthy cousin, his slightly cold, elegant, but not a villainous wife, and a loud, warm, and as you find out later, a kind mother-in-law, welcome Celia, Jane, and Margot (in the order of age), the Woodward sisters.
Doubt and concern for the much-anticipated tea shop in Texas plague the sisters’ minds as they can’t find a suitable place soon enough. Meanwhile, Jane finds and loses love, Celia witnesses nearly unrequited love as she suffers from her own abruptly ended (for her sisters and us, readers) relationship, Margot fears the uncertainty of future. Their father’s transgressions continue shadowing their thoughts and ambitions. Friends and not-so-well-wishers from past come back to haunt the present.
What happens next? Read the book.
I have enjoyed Jane Austen’s novels. If not the biggest fan ever, I do appreciate the use of irony in her prose, her wit in creating characters contrasting each other in a book showing us the huge difference in the then society hierarchy, the perceptions of one’s wealth and worth (have we changed much?) and moralities, senses, and sensibilities.
Hillary Manton Lodge’s work shows the similar perceptions existing in the minds of those treading in the different levels of a current and relatable society. She has taken Jane Austen’s already created characters who exemplify the said levels (yes, even now) and set them into a world of her own imagination and experience, hence created an excellent blend of classic and modern feel in her book, not unlike the tea her protagonist Jane brews.
Lodge didn’t blindly copy the characters. Her Jane is way more sensible and responsible, hence admirable, compared to the Marianne from Sense and Sensibility. She takes a larger part in accepting and adapting to the changes the Woodwards go through, compared to Marianne. Jane Austen’s work reflects a society of her time. Modern women like us find it difficult to imagine the greatest crisis in a book is the reduction in the number of servants or four people living in only four bedrooms. Lodge has brought the scale much towards current reality by introducing the father’s tax evasion and absence of a mother, showing the young protagonists as strong, independent young women, not waiting for someone to help them out of their dilemma and spending their days painting and singing and playing the piano. Lodge’s Woodward sisters have trust funds, do all the aforementioned delicate lady-like things appreciable in marriageable young women, and work hard to establish their business mostly on their own.
The characters are well-rounded. Callum, Celia, Nina, make other significant examples who stand out.
The plot is pretty good with crisis appearing in comfortable intervals keeping a decent pace. Lodge shows more than she tells, giving us a detailed insight into the sisters’ lives and their surroundings without being tedious.
My favourite parts are wherever Lodge talks about Tea. Growing, storing, blending, brewing. That’s the originality she has brought into her book, the quotations and recipes, besides the well-transformed characters who form the skeleton around which the story fleshes out. I think of the novel as of two parts: Tea shop in San Francisco and Tea shop in Texas. The recipes were interesting but alas, I don’t bake, nor am I a tea enthusiast.
Time to whine. I should have expected the little formulaic round up of all relationships but didn’t. Jane Woodward’s analysis of some supporting character in her mind, their eccentricities, virtues, justifying their good and bad actions, were a little heavy on the telling. I don’t know if those parts were meant to show Jane’s goodness in believing everybody is good and justifiable or that nobody is at fault. The father’s act was the only one not attempted at justification.
While there was pretty appreciable humour in the narrative, Jane Austen’s classic wit and irony in using her characters to portray her time and society were missing. Jane Austen’s subtle mockery of her time, when women’s future hung from the marriage ring, didn’t find a smooth transition into a modern version. Lodge’s version is a romance. It does not serve as a social satire. If you like romance you will enjoy this book. Do not look for Jane Austen here. You will appreciate the retelling better.
Jane of Austin: A Novel of Sweet Tea and Sensibility
by Hillary Manton Lodge