Friday, June 11, 2021

Review - I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend

Original Title: I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend
Series: Jane Austen, #1
Author: Cora Harrison
Published: January 1st, 2010

Publisher: Delacorte Press


I’ve had this book in my TBR for a long time, and I finally got to it. And sadly, I have to say, I didn’t like it. It fell too short. And what makes it even worse is that the whole idea sounded so promising! Even after finishing the book and reading the author’s note, I kept thinking it was a great concept, but sadly, ended up very poorly executed.

One of the things that surprised me the most is that this book’s protagonist, Jenny Cooper, is based on a real person. Apparently, there was a Jane Cooper, who was Jane Austen’s cousin in real life, that married a man named Thomas Williams, after only a couple of weeks of knowing each other. In my opinion, Cora Harrison had a golden opportunity with her, considering that she can’t exactly make up Jane Austen’s life, because there are lots of biographies on her, and she’s a well-known figure. Being virtually unknown, this Jane Cooper gave the author an enormous amount of freedom, that rarely appears in biographical fiction works. But I think it was wasted with the diary format, because we only hear Jenny’s voice. I think the story would have worked better as a dual perspective book, because it would have given us the opportunity of not only knowing the action through Jenny’s eyes, but also, through Thomas’.

One of the things I liked about this book was the way Cora Harrison scattered references to Jane Austen’s books here and there, that any fan can spot, mostly through the things and the people Jenny tells us about. For example:

- Jenny’s insufferable sister-in-law, Augusta, calls her husband caro sposo, just like Mrs. Elton in “Emma”, who is also named Augusta.
- Jane wants to marry Tom Chute instead of his older brother William, because he’s sickly and will probably die, like Edmund and Tom Bertram, in “Mansfield Park”.
- The Austen family is preparing a play to perform, also like in “Mansfield Park”.
- There are brief mentions of random people named after Austen characters, like Fanny Dashwood, Lt. Price, Mariah and Julia Bertram, Mary King, etc.
- Brief mention of a girl who “was aged barely sixteen when she ran away with an army captain”, and that when her relatives found her, they “had already been living together as man and wife”, so there was nothing left to do but getting them married. Obviously, this references Lydia and Wickham, from “Pride and Prejudice”.
- Jane tells Jenny that “If a lady doubts whether she should accept a man, then she certainly should not do so”, like Emma tells Harriet, in “Emma”.

And so on.

More than once, as I read, I thought the story seemed to have no point. Jenny kept writing in her journal about daily life scenes, without any real action going on. The most relevant thing that happens is that she meets George, Jane’s mentally disabled brother, that the family gave away because of it. I liked to see that Jane never forgot about him, and even put effort in teaching him words and sounds, in contrast with her own mother, that never even thought about educating him (but I liked that, in the end, she said he was her son, in front of everyone, and saved his life).

As I’ve said before in other reviews, I never buy insta-love, and this book wasn’t the exception. The way Jenny and Thomas meet could have led to something interesting, because they both kept it a secret, for the sake of her reputation. But I just didn’t like it. Jenny manages to sneak out of her school, around 11:30 PM, to get to the post-inn before the mail coach leaves at midnight, and in the process, she meets Thomas. And in that brief moment, between posting the letter and hurrying back before being caught, he escorts her, and basically tells her about his whole life. That he’s an orphan, that he has a sister named Elinor who was unhappy in a boarding school, that he has inherited a property in the Isle of Wight… To a total stranger! A sixteen-year-old girl, alone in the middle of the street, at midnight, wouldn’t be the person I would tell everything about my life after just a few minutes. This just doesn’t work for me.

I get that Jenny is just sixteen, but at one point I found myself begging her to please, make up her mind. After her midnight adventure, Thomas Williams is not seen again, until past half of the book (literally). Until then, and because she had been living with the Austen family, she sort of had a crush on Jane’s brother, Henry, and they flirt a little, here and there. She mentions him all the time. But the moment they attend the ball, and Thomas shows up, it’s like Henry never existed. She suddenly can’t imagine life without Thomas, and honestly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As a reader, felt I could cut the entire thing out of the book, and the plot wouldn’t have changed at all.

As for the moment in which Jenny’s midnight escapade is revealed, and she thinks Thomas betrayed her, it’s a typical Austen misunderstanding, although without the comedy only she could have brought to the situation. And finally, in the highwaymen scene, it bothered me that Jenny, instead of being the protagonist in the climax of her own story, was just a witness of Thomas’ heroism, getting right on time to save everyone, as the knight in shining armour. As I said before, the author had a golden opportunity with this couple, because, as not much is known about their relationship, she was free to let her imagination fly, and could have told us a richer tale of what, she imagined, was going on between them, making them both deeper, and giving us something that could justify their relationship, after just three weeks. But sadly, she didn’t.

But the one quote that made want to flush the book down the toilet, is this one:

When you told me how you nearly died, it frightened me. I realized then that I could not live without you. I felt that I would never be happy unless you were with me.

Oh, my God *face-palm*

They have only seen each other three or four times, when Thomas says this! Literally. And I can’t. I just can’t. No. This isn’t for me. Not even Jane Austen herself wrote insta-loves like this. However, I’m on the fence about it, because the real Jane Cooper and Thomas Williams actually got engaged three weeks after they met, and married in that very same year. But as I didn’t fully like Jenny, and didn’t know enough about Thomas as to root for them and their love, I guess that, as far as fiction goes, it’s just not the kind of romance I like to read about.

I don’t know if I’ll read more by Cora Harrison. This book was very lacking in most of its aspects, except, perhaps, in the Austen references, here and there. Even though, in general, I liked the concept of exploring the life of a teen Jane Austen, the diary format was neither well executed, nor had likeable characters. It just didn’t do it for me.

Thank you so much for reading!
‘til next one!


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