Me: 'Oh no, oh no no no no. Frigging hell'
Me: 'Nothing. NOOOOO! GAH!'
Him: 'Chuck the bloody thing!'
Me: 'I can't! I have to get to the end.'
Him: 'But why? You're hating it.'
Me: 'Yes, I am. Shut up.'
Him: 'I just don't understand.'
Me: 'Me neither.
Oh my gawd...'
Me: 'Nothing. ARGH! Cow!'
You see, a woman walked into a secondhand bookshop... sounds like the beginning of a joke doesn't it? But it's no joke.
I did indeed walk into a secondhand bookshop last week, and sitting on the 'new arrivals' shelf was a brand new, hardly touched hardback of Colleen McCulloch's latest tome, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, for $17.
I hadn't planned to touch the book until I find millions of copies dumped at the Lifeline Bookfair a-la Bryce Courtenay next year, but... but... but... I just couldn't resist the chance to buy a relatively cheap copy so close to the release date.
'Oh!' said the man I bought it from, 'this has only been on the shelf 20 minutes.'
I bought it, then told him that it had only been out about three weeks and that it would have been snapped up by the next person to walk in if it hadn't been me. His face instantly fell, and you could see him worrying about his boss's reaction (she certainly wouldn't have marked it that cheap).
Anyway, I took the incredibly purple volume home and placed it on top of my 'crap to read when recovering from anaesthetic' pile. But then it kept calling to me: 'I'm a sequel to P&P! I'm either going to be fun and funky or extremely tragic! Come and find out!'
Come and read me, Duckie!
So I picked it off the pile and read the first page. And then couldn't put it down, in the same way you can't stop looking at a snake if it's looking at you. And the circular dialogue started, and didn't stop until I finished, last night.
Yes, I've read the reviews, especially the bit where McCulloch predicts
"The literati are going to scream blue murder... 'How dare she touch Austen!', they'll say."
Well, all I can say is that she can't, and hasn't touched Austen. Nothing in this book even remotely resembles Austen except the names of the characters. My big question is rather why she bothered?
It's very much a McCulloch novel, a cross between Angel Puss and something Georgette Heyer would write if she were suffering from indigestion. I don't begrudge CM the right to write an historical romance, because she's hell-bent on creating a career that includes at least one of every literary genre known to man (with the noted exception of Literature). This book could quite easily be a novel about a completely different family, and would probably be very successful. But these particular characters have such a weight of affection attached to them that her snarky authorial intention saps the book of any playfulness she attempts.
I think the biggest disappointment for me with the book is Mary's makeover. When I first read that CM was writing this book, I got quite interested in the idea of her exploring Mary's options as an ugly spinster at that time of history. But within the first chapter or so we discover that she has had her acne cured by a simple remedy and it has left no scars, and that once an overlapping tooth was removed, her teeth moved perfectly into place. And so the ugly duckling is rendered beautiful, and Mary's only real problems are those of convincing the world that she is worthy of being taken seriously. Sounds like McCulloch's own problem. Why on earth would you flatten out the best issue of the book like that? Shame on you, Colleen, I thought you were gutsier than that.
But really, I should have known better. McCulloch's books feed off each other in unhealthy ways. She's turned Mary (and Lizzie, since they now look a lot like each other) into Julius Caesar's excellent (according to CM) mother, Aurelia, with her purple eyes, and Lizzy's son into Caesar himself, with his masculine qualities yet looking feminine enough to make other men doubt his sexuality, including, in Charles' case, his father 'Fitz' (Darcy). Purple eyes! That's McCulloch showing her age, holding Elizabeth Taylor up as an icon of ultimate female beauty. At least she gave Aurelia dark hair with the eyes, whereas Mary and Lizzy are gingers, playing complementary opposite colour games with my mental images of these poor women, sending me mental. Lizzy, a ginger? With purple eyes? Nuh uh. That's akin to sci fi in my head.
McCulloch may have done her research and be able to reel off all the appropriate suppliers of gentlemen's clothing in the early 19th century, but her writing is purely contemporary, and never at ANY point evokes a skerrick of Austen's charm. This is probably a good thing, because (as May Day Press points out in the comments below) attempts to write in an Austen-like manner invariably fail. The plot is melodramatic, tacky, and at times just wretched. I dare anyone to read the deliberately provocative last line without retching: Worst. Last. Line. Eva.
I'm a pretty forgiving reader if there's some charm and goodwill; I've read nearly everything she's written -- mostly while I'm in the bath, since I don't care if the book gets wrecked -- and this is the first time I've ever put one of her books aside with a sense of resentment. If this novel was really only written to piss off people, she's succeeded. I'm pissed off at the waste of paper,* and the waste of McCulloch's -- I don't know if I can actually say talent -- story-telling abilities.
Approach with caution, and only when it's been remaindered. I think I'm going to walk it straight back to the secondhand bookshop. And thus the circle will turn again.
* this is not just a point about the writing; I'm sick of these slab-like books printed on half a rainforest that could easily be a slim handsome volume if the designer just reduced the obscenely bloated line leading. A bit less space, a lot less paper, instant footprint reduction. Sigh.