Mansfield Park

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1814 (read Jan. 2021 on audible)
Narrator: Billie Piper & full cast

Mansfield Park – my final Jane Austen. I left Emma for last in the Audible collection, but as it will be a re-read, I’ve now finished them all!

I was curious what I would think about Mansfield Park. I’ve heard it’s not a favourite and I was determined to like it just as much as the others, but alas, I didn’t. I still think it’s a great book and overall I would give it 3.5 stars, but something about it just wasn’t quite as endearing.

The reason a lot of people dislike MP (I’ve heard) is because of how timid and meek Fanny Price is. I admit, she doesn’t have quite the same draw as characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma, who are very self-assured, but it’s clear she’s intentionally written that way. One thing I appreciate about Austen is that despite having similar themes in all her books, each of her heroines is quite unique and Fanny was really a victim of circumstance.

Of all Austen’s books, this one reminded me the most of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favourite classics. While Fanny eventually finds her place at Mansfield Park, as a child, she is mistreated by every member of the family save Edmond. It wasn’t surprising that she grew to be so quiet and timid, yet I must praise her developing such morality. While everyone else at Mansfield lets their egos and vanity run away with them, Fanny is the sole voice of reason and propriety. Doesn’t sound like quite as much fun, but she becomes a very good reader of people.

I confess I struggled a little bit on this one to read the characters as well as Fanny. I had no idea where the plot was going as Austen is both reliable in her story telling, yet unpredictable. Knowing how it ends now I think I shall have to go back a read it again some day to see if I can’t pick up some more telltales of each of the character’s motivations. Fanny was much more perceptive than me as I found myself forgiving all of Henry’s previous transgressions and becoming quite a fan. Probably it was because I desperately didn’t want the novel to end with 2 cousins getting married, but while I could see through Mary Crawford, Henry had me quite duped.

However I think the main reason I didn’t love MP quite as much is because I didn’t find it as comic as Austen’s other books. To be fair, I had just read Northanger Abbey, which I think is the most comic of the lot, but I found the characters more vexing than funny. Still a sign of a good author, but I found it hard to find anything humorous about characters like Mrs. Norris. Likewise, while characters like Lydia are annoying, I still found her funny, whereas I found Maria extremely shallow and felt bad for thinking that she got her just reward (unfair I know when characters like Henry are just forgiven by society thanks to their wealth and sex). But mostly I was just sad about how Fanny was treated by her relatives.

The one thing I really liked about this book though was Fanny’s resolve not to marry Henry. She was pressured so much by her family and I honestly thought Henry seemed so sincere. I both wanted her to accept him, but also wanted her not to because it would only reinforce the terrible notion that a ‘no’ doesn’t really mean no, only that the individual needs to be better convinced. Women should be respected enough to know their own mind. Fortunately this wasn’t beyond Austen either and this quality in Fanny ended up raising her in everyone’s opinions when it was discovered what a scoundrel Henry really was.

Some of the my personal highlights were (in no particular order):
– Sir Thomas having his character redeemed and being good to Fanny
– The realization that while Fanny had a tough time at MP, she did ultimately gain from it and was raised in social class
– Henry deciding to woo Fanny for sport only to fall in love with her
– Fanny’s decidedness in not marrying Henry despite the pressure from every single person at Mansfield
– The love triangles and lack of discretion
– Fanny’s impression of her family when she returns home
– Grown adults acting out a play like children

Sense and Sensibility

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1811 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Cast

Despite having already made one attempt at this book, I decided to make it my third read in the audiobook series. I never finished it on my first read-through and despite having read 60% of it, I remembered nothing of the content, so I knew a re-read would be more like a first read now that I’ve discovered my appreciation of Austen.

I read the full cast audiobook in just 2 days and loved it so much more! I’d still place P&P at the top of my list, but I’m between S&S and Persuasion for the second. I think I’d give the edge to S&S as overall I enjoyed it more than Persuasion, I just didn’t like the ending quite as much. Had the ending gone a different way I think this might have been a 5-star read for me, but alas, I have a few criticisms.

First let’s talk about what I liked though. This book was about sisters! I know her other books have sisters too, but the relationship between Elinor and Marianne was really central to the theme of this book (though I do love Elizabeth and Jane’s relationship in P&P as well). Elinor and Marianne embody the title of the book and despite their close relationship, could not be more different from one another when it comes to their approach to love. Elinor is sensible while Marianne is wildly romantic.

While the book starts with Elinor’s flirtation with Edward Ferras, we are quickly swept up into Marianne’s whirlwind romance with Mr. Willoughby. Elinor makes no assumptions about her relationship with Edward, but Marianne abandons almost every sense of Victorian propriety in her desire for Mr. Willoughby. And through it all Colonel Brandon stands patiently by wishing both sisters all the best. I definitely related more to Elinor and found Marianne to be too impulsive, but I did come to love her romantic heart and appreciate that though over the top – her feelings were thoroughly encouraged by Willoughby and that she shouldn’t held too much to blame.

The one thing I did remember from this book from both readings was the conversation between Mr. Dashwood and Fanny in the first chapter of the book. I bring it up because I think it is such a fine example of Austen’s brilliance. It’s not often that you see so much dialogue in a book, but Austen really is the master of it. One conversation between John and Fanny about the fortunes of the Dashwood sisters told me everything I needed to know about both their characters. They really are the most odious people and if I was Elinor I would have found it so hard not to call them out on their selfishness and greed.

As a villain, I think Mr. Willoughby may be one of my favourites thus far. He is so deliciously evil, yet we get to see something from him that is absent from both villains in P&P and Persuasion: remorse. He’s still a total scoundrel, but his final conversation with Elinor humanizes him and I enjoyed getting to see a more 3-dimensional villain. That said, I also loved Elinor’s observation of his fickleness. He’s able to regret that he married for money rather than love now that he has the comfort of money. But had it been the other way around, he likely would have had the same regret that he married for love now that he had no money.

What I liked about S&S as well was the return to a well developed love interest. Colonel Brandon was such an example of caring and goodness. He’s a constant throughout the novel, yet he never asks anything of the Dashwood sisters. He supports them both, assists them in any way he can, and only wishes them both every happiness. We get an interesting back story about him that again, demonstrates the strength of his character.

What disappointed me was how the romance was resolved. I liked both Elinor and Marianne, but as the main focus of the novel, I related much more with Elinor and wanted so much to see her happy. I thought everyone was misreading Colonel Brandon’s intentions and that he was actually going to end up with Elinor. I cared much less for Edward. The whole saga with Lucy only served to make me care more for Elinor and resent both Lucy and Edward. I know we’re told he no longer cares for Lucy, but has too much honour to get out of it, but the treatment of the whole thing made me think him unworthy of Elinor.

He lead her on in the beginning and though he had real feelings for her, I felt he should never marry Lucy just because he made a promise to her. I understand that the thought was very different in Austen’s time and that couples came to really know one another after the marriage and that once a proposal was made, it should be kept, but Austen was ahead of her time and I thought Elinor and Colonel Brandon would have made a better couple. I would have been totally fine with Marianne not finding love at all in this book. She showed a lot of growth at the end and came out of her heartbreak with renewed love for her sister and appreciation for her family.

Which brings me to my final point. While I could see Elinor with Colonel Brandon, I just couldn’t see him with Marianne. They had little interaction throughout the novel and less chemistry. He was enamoured with her musical talent, but I thought he shared an emotional connection with Elinor and I found it hard to believe Marianne would fall for him. Likewise with Elinor becoming attached to Edward at the end, I felt we never really got to know Edward and I struggled to understand Elinor’s love for him.

So overall I really enjoyed the characters and storyline, but the ending left something to be desired. Austen is still a romanticist and I just wasn’t feeling the final pair-ups.

Highlights of the book for me were (in no particular order):
– the opening dialogue between John and Fanny Dashwood
– the relationship between Elinor and Marianne
– everything about Colonel Brandon, particularly his backstory
– Marianne’s unbridled desperation to see Willoughby
– the added depth to Willoughby’s character
– John Dashwood hoping everyone else but him would provide for his sisters
– John Dashwood not understanding why Colonel Brandon would selflessly help someone not from his family
– Lucy Steele being ridiculous
– Elinor constantly telling Marianne to restrain herself
– Marianne corresponding with a man out of wedlock *gasp*

Persuasion

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1818 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Florence Pugh & Cast

Persuasion was my second pick from the Audible suite of full cast Jane Austen audiobooks. I understand it’s one of her less popular books, but I’ve heard some good things about Anne Elliot and decided to jump into it.

It was definitely a different beast than P&P, though I’m coming to recognize a bit of pattern in many of Austen’s books. At 27 years of age, Anne is one of Austen’s much older heroines and definitely the member of her family with the most sense. She fell in love earlier in life to Captain Wentworth, but was advised by her family to decline him due to his lack of fortune and title.

In contrast to P&P, Anne’s family comes from high breeding and so they had a bit more pride than I’d come to expect from the Bennet family. While the Bennet’s were concerned with marrying up, the Elliot’s were concerned with maintaining their social status. The recurring theme of Austen’s novels being that regardless of money and class, women are really at the mercy of their marriage as their social status will drop or advance to that of their husband when they marry.

I liked Anne – she was sensible, considerate, and much more tolerant than I would have been in her circumstance. Next to her character, many of the other characters seemed childish and frivolous. Even though marriage is the ultimate achievement for these women, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the Musgrove sisters as they flirted with the various men in the book. Next to them, Anne felt so mature, it was hard to understand how all the men weren’t taken with her.

I found the structure of this book interesting though. It works up to a climax just a little past the halfway mark, when Louisa has her accident and the plot seems to ramp down from there even though there’s a lot of book left. I was also surprised by how much Anne seemed to judge others by their birth and title as well. Although I suppose it makes sense as she ultimately turned Wentworth down the first time because of his lack of title or fortune.

I liked that Anne was older and more mature, but as far as romance goes, I wasn’t as sold on this book. I liked Anne and I had nothing against Wentworth, but I also felt that I really didn’t know very much about him. Austen takes the time in P&P (and in S&S and Emma) to introduce us to her male characters are well. We get their backstories and through their actions become endeared to them. In Persuasion, I felt like I got limited backstory of Captain Wentworth. I didn’t really know why Anne fell in love with him to begin with and they had limited interactions that gave me a sense of his true character.

Their relationship grows towards the end of the novel and you start to see an inkling of their desire for one another, but I felt the romance of it was wrapped up too suddenly. While Wentworth’s letter was certainly romantic, I wanted more action to back up the goodness of his character. Overall I still liked it, but it was certainly different from her other novels.

Some of the highlights for me were (in no particular order):
– Wentworth’s letter to Anne at the end
– Mary’s selfishness and general ridiculousness
– Charles Musgrove’s good nature
– Mary calling out the sexism of motherhood
– The Crofts love for one another
– Anne’s conversation with Mrs. Smith where all is revealed
– The manner in which Louisa becomes injured (wtf)
– Sir Walter and Elizabeth being idiots about being unable to reduce their lifestyle despite having no money
– Anne’s sensibility and ability to be happy for others despite her own heartbreak

Pride and Prejudice

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub. Date: 1813 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)
Narrator: Claire Foy & Cast

I’ve read 3 Jane Austen’s in the last month and the narratives are already starting to run into each other in my mind, so I figured it’s time I write some of my reviews.

P&P was not my first Austen, but it was the first that I’ve read and loved. For some reason I seem to have an interest for classics only in audio form and I listened to both Emma and S&S in the last two years. The version of Emma I listened to was free and while I listened to the whole audiobook, I found it a little tedious. I followed that up with Rosamond Pike’s version of S&S and had even less luck and DNFed at 60%.

So I’m not sure what possessed me to make another attempt, but when I saw all 6 books available for 1 credit and narrated by a full cast, I couldn’t resist. I’ve always felt that Jane Austen aught to be an author I should love. Her wit and sarcastic commentary about social class, wealth, and romance just screams my kind of book and I’m thrilled to have finally realized my love for her!

I can’t recommend these audiobooks enough! I’m halfway through and have loved them all so far. They’re each narrated by a different actress and feature a full cast for the characters and dialogue. I do find Austen’s casts a little daunting at the start of each book in trying to keep all the characters straight, so I think the full cast has helped immensely in this regard. Claire Foy does an excellent job narrating P&P and to date the cast of P&P was also my favourite. Especially the actress who plays Elizabeth, I thought she did a wonderful job!

Apparently I’ve read retellings of P&P and seen the movie, and yet have never picked up the original text. I watched the Kiera Knightly movie in high school and hated it, but I’ve resolved to rewatch it now that I’ve actually read it as I’ve heard it’s quite good. I’m tempted too by the mini series because I think Colin Firth is just the best Mr. Darcy, but I’m not convinced I’ll ever find the time to watch the whole thing.

So despite already knowing the story, I loved this so much more than I expected! There are a lot of subtleties with the family that I never picked up on in the past and I found myself so amused by Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Austen’s humour is something I’d read about but never really fully appreciated until this read through. Her characters are both hilarious and exhausting – it’s a wonder women don’t agree to the first marriage proposal that comes their way because the whole process of ensnaring a husband seems so tiring and tedious.

So I laughed a lot at the secondary characters, was enthralled by the drama of it all, and fell totally in love with both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. I didn’t realize Austen’s novels were so full of villains and I definitely got caught up in the intrigue of it all. I love that despite knowing her characters are all going to have happy endings, I never know which characters I can truly trust and to never let your first impression of a character carry too much weight.

I’m not going to both getting into a plot synopsis, we all know the story of P&P, but I found myself much more endeared to Mr. Darcy in this book. I feel like some of the retellings and other renditions don’t quite capture the goodness of his character and despite feeling resolved not to like him, I found myself falling for him just as strongly as Elizabeth.

The novel highlights for me were (in no particular order):
– Mr. Collins assured proposal to Elizabeth
– Mr. Darcy’s unexpected and insulting proposal to Elizabeth
– Mrs. Bennet blaming absolutely everyone but herself for her family’s failures and her general ridiculousness
– The Gardiners goodness
– Elizabeth telling Lady Catherine to suck it
– Mr. Darcy’s selflessness in trying to help the Bennet family at the end
– Lydia being an idiot
– Jane’s sweetness
– Mr. Bennet supporting Elizabeth when she declines Mr. Collins
– Elizabeth’s feisty character

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2012 (read Dec. 2020)

This book has been on my TBR for a long time and I’m so proud of myself for finally picking it up and making the time to read it! I’ve been reading less in the pandemic, so my book buying habit has gone down and I’ve been finding myself looking through my shelves and trying to knock off some of the books that have been sitting on my TBR for a while.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home reminded me a lot of Rebecca Makkai’s, The Great Believers, but for teenagers instead of adults. They’re the only two books I can recall reading that are set during the aids crisis of the 1980’s and amazingly art features heavily in both books! Is there some connection I’m unaware of between the crisis and great works of art? Because I found it intriguing that both stories were so heavily focused on art and paintings. Maybe just a weird coincidence, but intriguing nonetheless.

Anyways, the similarities between the two novels pretty much ends there. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story about 14 year old June Elbus and the relationships she has with both her Uncle and her sister. Her Uncle Finn is a world renown painter who has given up on sharing his artwork with the world, but he and June (and her mother) are still both enamoured by all works of art and as her Godfather, they develop a close relationship. June spends many of her weekends with Finn, but when he passes away from aids, she is heartbroken.

After his death, Finn leaves behind all his earthly possessions to his boyfriend, Toby, who is shunned by the family and blamed for Finn’s death, save for a single painting he did of June and her sister Greta, which he of course, wills to the girls. The girls have mixed feelings about the painting, which neither is sure quite captures their likeness. As June struggles with her grief, both Greta and Toby try to strike up a friendship with her – but June can’t make sense of sister, who seems to both love and hate her – and she is confused by Toby, who changes the way she remembers Finn and their relationship.

It’s a slow build story, but I absolutely loved the development between June and each of the other characters. I had no idea there would be such a strong sister element to this story and I was completely intrigued with June and Greta. Greta never had the same relationship with Finn as June, but she is struggling with her own feelings. She is on the verge of an adulthood she feels unprepared for and as a result, acts out like a child. She’s always been the star child, but this only leaves her feeling misunderstood and she is hurt by June’s close relationship with Finn. You can tell these two sisters want to be there for each other, but there’s such a chasm to overcome between their hurts.

I expected June’s relationship with Toby to be the focus of the story, but its really just one piece of the puzzle. We’re these two ever meant to be friends? I’m not sure they were, but they find each other in a time that they both need one another and it was nice that they were able to help heal one another.

Also unexpected was June’s relationship with her mom. I wish this one had been developed a little more, but it was still really intriguing the history behind her mom and her uncle and how her mother’s selfish choices had a lasting impact on the people she loved most. It was a good reminder of the constraints of the time period, but also a reminder that our jealousy and selfishness can get the better of us.

Finally, I loved the side story between Greta and June (and to an extent their mom) and the painting. Every time anyone went down to the bank I’d get so stressed out, but really this was about 3 different women all trying to be seen and understood for who they were. It’s about 2 sisters who miss the ease of their childhood friendship and have forgotten how to grow and support one another. It’s about family and grief and loss and moving on. It’s a slow burn, but I will always understand the girls yearning for sisterhood.