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Books: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

This is… a cute book, I guess. It’s a modernized version of Austen’s classic. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything else by McDermid, but her bio (and many other reviewers) mark her as a crime writer, so I’m not entirely sure why she was tapped to do this, the second in a “Jane Austen Project.” Maybe because McDermid’s name sells? But then, so does Austen’s, I would think? And not necessarily to the same crowd.

In this take, Cat Morland has the rare opportunity to visit Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival with their well-to-do neighbors the Allens. While there, Cat makes friends both fair and foul, as per the Austen way. She becomes smitten with Henry Tilney and simultaneously must put up with unwanted attention from Johnny Thorpe. Eventually Cat is invited to the Tilney manor house Northanger Abbey, etc. etc.

There are a lot of things in this book that don’t quite work. The dialogue by the purported teens, for one thing. The very black-and-white characters for another. Good people are clearly angels and the bad people have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Everyone in between comes off as a dimwit or simply dull. There are no facets to any of the characters at all. Even Cat is fairly annoying in that she is naive and often shrill.

The pacing isn’t great, either. There is a looooong wind-up before things actually happen. As I recall (and it’s been two or three years since I last read Austen’s novel), this is true to the original. BUT. If you’re going to rewrite it for a modern readership, why not pace it for one too? The result is a rushed ending, and not a very good one. Oh, it’s the requisite happy ending, but the conflict at that point, such as it is, is lame and not handled very well. I won’t go into detail in case you want to try this book, but… It’s pretty terrible. And if that “misunderstanding” had been moved up a bit and worked differently, it actually might have been both funny and a teaching moment. Instead it’s a throw away that reflects badly and leaves a bitter taste at the end of the book.

Finally, the book needed at least one more edit pass. There are some truly clunky sentences here that need smoothing out, some repetitious words that could have been tweaked. But I’ve noticed that, the more famous the author, the more corners they cut when rushing to publish. After all, the book will sell anyway, right? If I were a bestselling author, I’d demand more attention for my work rather than less.

All this sounds pretty damning, but I didn’t entirely hate the book. The faults are glaring and were a bit distracting while I was reading, but I did enjoy it to some extent. I gave it 3.5 stars on Goodreads (rounding to 4), though looking at it now I maybe should have gone with 3. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever read. Though again I have to wonder why these things get the go-ahead and my Shakespeare retellings do not. I’m sure name recognition plays into it, but here is Cat, an utter puddle of a protagonist, and my Nerissa (Hamlette) is considered too flippant? At least she has a personality, something Cat largely lacks except in a few scenes when she decides to be argumentative. Hmm…

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