31 Dec 2014

Not quite totes amazeballs: Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Release Date: 27th March 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 343
Format: Paperback | Purchased

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Summary (from GoodReads): 

Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels? A delectable, note-perfect modern update of the Jane Austen classic, Northanger Abbey tells a timeless story of innocence amid cynicism, the exquisite angst of young love, and the value of friendship.

My Thoughts:

Whether or not a person will like a sequel, prequel, spin-off or modern retelling of an Austen novel will always be a personal thing. I find some of them to be interesting and – like any other genre – there are some good ones and there are some shockers (I adore Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason as stand alone novels, but as modernisations of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion respectively, I find them lacking). If you’re an Austen purist, than the second novel in HarperCollins’ The Austen Project is probably not for you. The vibe that I got from McDermid’s Northanger Abbey is that it is intended to introduce a younger generation to Austen’s works, rather than something that is to be enjoyed by someone familiar with the original. 

Our heroine is seventeen-year-old Cat Morland, a vicar’s daughter living what she views to be a rather humdrum life in Piddle Valley, Dorset. Cat reads to fuel her imagination, loving any novel that features a zombie, vampire or ghost. At one point Cat mentions that she prefers these books because it’s easy to believe that these things could happen in real life, and they’re just hidden under the surface of our society (Cat mentioned this is a conversation about Harry Potter, which confused me because it’d be just as easy – if not more - to believe that a hidden magical world exists, but Cat scoffs and insists that Harry Potter is for children because it’s so unbelievable). Her naivety and sheltered life is explained by the fact that she has been home schooled by her mother, a former teacher who believed that education system was not beneficial for learning. Her rich neighbours, Susie and Andrew Allen, invite Cat to attend the Edinburgh Festival with them and she is too happy to take the offer up - she believes it will be the perfect setting for the kind of adventures she reads about.  Under the guidance of Susie, Cat is introduced to theatre, art and books. She also takes up dance lessons for the Highland Ball, where she is partnered with the incredibly witty and charming young attorney, Henry Tilney. With a bit of Facebook stalking (of both Henry and his sister Ellie), Cat discovers that his father is a much-decorated general who fought in the Falkland’s war and that his family owns Northanger Abbey. Through Susie Allen, Cat also meets Bella Thorpe, the daughter of one of Susie’s school friends. 

While I find the original Catherine Morland quite charming (most probably because I first read Austen’s Northanger Abbey at an age where I found Cathy to be incredibly relatable, although I was too young to really understand the context in which the novel was written), she’s a little less charming in an updated version. Maybe because in an age were information is widespread and readily available, superstitions and folktales are practically obsolete and those who believe in them are judged for it; but it was quite difficult to believe that somebody who is eighteen would still believe that vampires actually exist and convince herself that an entire family are vampires. However, it’s an integral part to both Cat and Cathy’s character and a driving force of the story, and it wouldn’t have felt right had this aspect of Cat been removed. 

It feels like there’s some literary understanding is there, but there’s something missing. I’ve never read any of McDermid’s work, but she seems to be a celebrated (crime) author, so I feel like there could’ve been – and should’ve been – a bit more to this adaptation. Moving it from Bath to Edinburgh was a great creative choice, but it felt like that was really the only major creative change. McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story, which is the book’s biggest downfall. I’m a big believer in remakes of classic literature finding ways to creatively retell the original story, and this doesn’t mean updating the setting and throwing in a few references to Facebook, mobile phones and technology in general. This really is a retelling of Northanger Abbey, rather than the modernisation that it is advertised to be.

A few other things that grated on me:
  •    This may sound a bit odd, but I didn’t like the constant referencing of Austen’s work – Ellie Tilney was described as looking like she’d stepped out of the pages of Pride and Prejudice; at one point Cat is reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Not only does it come across (well, to me, anyway) as lazy story telling, but also I think it conflicts with the world building. If Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice exist in Cat’s world, it would stand to reason that Northanger Abbey would too, and wouldn’t you feel just a little strange if you found out that there was a Regency-era novel that was eerily similar to your life?  I don’t like the idea of just pretending one of Austen’s works doesn’t exist just to make your story work, it doesn’t feel right to me.
  •   Cat comes across as a bit of a dodo brain at times? At one point she says to Henry, “I don’t think Freddie knows that Bella’s engaged to my brother!” Um, yes he does. It was basically the first thing you said to him when you two were introduced a few pages back. So… while Cathy wanted to believe the best in everybody, Cat just seems a bit dim.
  • The other thing – Bella and Jamie engaged? Really? They weren’t even dating and then they get engaged? I realise it would’ve been difficult to send Jamie away in order for Bella and Freddie to flirt, but I would’ve much preferred Jamie being called away on a work-related matter. Like I said, creative ways to update the original, rather than just plonking it in an updated setting and keeping everything else the same.
  •   Bella’s shorthand – bgf? Totes? I find when somebody tries to replicate teenage slang; it just comes off as awkward and cringe worthy. McDermid’s efforts are no exception. There’s only so many times I can see text speak before I want to hurl the book across the room.  It was incredibly jarring, having Bella scream “totes amazeballs!!!” every time she appeared. Am I missing something? Do teenagers actually talk like this and I’m just past the age to find it cool? It felt like McDermid was just projecting her idea of teenagers, rather than accurately portraying one. I know it’d be unlikely for McDermid to do, but the writers of Clueless actually sat in on high school classes so they could get the feel for how teenagers talked and behaved and make it feel authentic.
  •    While the original wasn’t as polished as Austen’s other works, it still had her signature wit and there was a subtlety to it. McDermid’s writing comes across as clunky and heavy handed. John Thorpe, irritating in the original, becomes downright unreadable.
While I’m still on the fence about how I feel about The Austen Project (if you want teenagers to be interested in Austen, encourage them to read Austen rather than Austen-lite), I liked Northanger Abbey enough to be interested in checking out Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Sense and Sensibility. Despite the book’s downfalls, despite it not being in the same league as the original, it really is a light, fun read. If modernisations of classic literature are your thing, check it out! 

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