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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Book Review: The Other Bennet Sister: A Novel by Janice Hadlow

Most people I know who read Jane Austen just detest Mary Bennet, the unlikable, prudish, judgmental middle sister from Pride & Prejudice. However I've always felt a little bad for her. Even in a large family, she's obviously cast out, with no allies to get her through their somewhat difficult life out in the rural countryside with nothing to do, no real prospects for her, and a highly uncertain future. It's lovely of Ms. Hadlow to imagine a different future for Mary than most of us do.

The book begins a bit before the appearance of Mr. Bingley and his party, and near the beginning of the book Mary, having learned that books are her only friend, is struggling to see well, and she talks her mother into letting her see an oculist, who makes a pair of spectacles for her--of which Mrs. Bennet is horrified. The oculist's son, who is learning the trade, actually seems interested in Mary and this gives a frisson of hope right up front, which sets a hopeful and positive tone for the whole book, even when things seems bleak.

The Pride & Prejudice plot is set into motion and we see some scenes from the book from Mary's eyes instead of Lizzy's, which does turn things a bit on their head. We also see that the much-older Charlotte Lucas is both a source of advice and frustration to Mary, who is following in her old maid footsteps, and may also one day have to hope for a Mr. Collins to come along. So when Charlotte seems to swoop in and snatch Mr. Collins right out from under Mary, it's a blow to her already minuscule self-esteem.

Then the book jumps ahead. The Bingleys are married, the Darcys are married, and Mr. Bennet has died. Mr. Collins has taken over Longborne, and horrifyingly Mary is the last single daughter, doomed to spend her days not only at the charity of her sisters, but with their mother at her constant side. After unfortunate stays with both the Bingleys and Darcys, Mary is desperate to escape, and finds solace and a welcome home in London with her Aunt and Uncle, who previously had hosted both Jane and Lizzy.

With some advice from her Aunt, a lot of self-reflection, and a couple of handsome young men who see much more potential in Mary than her relatives back home ever did, Mary starts to blossom. She'll never be the great beauty that Jane is or the life of the party that Lydia is, but she's herself--just better--when she's no longer hounded and disapproved of and insulted all the livelong day. And will she find love? Is this an Austen pastiche? Is the sky blue?

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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