Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field
by Melissa Nathan
(Avon, $14, PG) ISBN 0-06-018495-7
***
I don’t think Jane Austen is rolling in her grave in dismay over Melissa Nathan’s updated version of her classic Pride and Prejudice, but neither is she wholeheartedly applauding. This takeoff on one of the greatest novels ever written is entertaining but slight, and apt to send readers back to the original to refresh their memories - which isn’t a bad outcome.

Debut novelist and British magazine journalist Melissa Nathan uses a protagonist, Jasmin Field, who is - what else? - a British magazine journalist. Jazz reluctantly agrees to audition for a role in a one-time performance of a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice directed by Harry Noble, Oscar-winning actor and scion of a revered thespian family. Jazz’s older sister, Georgina, is a beautiful, sweet actress and her best friend, Mo, is a man-hungry flirt. Before the auditions, Jazz overhears the arrogant Harry refer to her as “the ugly Field sister” and uses her anger to effect a brilliant performance. Surprisingly, she is cast as Elizabeth Bennett, with sister George as the kind, beautiful Jane, and Mo as Charlotte Lucas.

From the first rehearsal, Harry Noble and Jazz clash spectacularly, as Jazz seems to be the only person not in awe of Harry’s lineage and fame. She finds an unexpected ally in William Whitby, a television actor who has been cast as “Wicked Wickham,” but she has to dodge the attentions of Gilbert Valentine, an unctuous theatre journalist who constantly boasts about his connections to Harry’s wealthy Great Aunt Alexandra. When Harry Noble makes a surprising declaration of reluctant admiration, an incredulous Jazz rejects him. But that’s before Jazz’s work and family life careen together in an alarming mess that jeopardizes everything she cherishes. Will Harry come down off his pedestal and save the day to win Jazz’s love? Will Jazz realize that her original hasty judgment of the man was based on misinformation and misunderstandings?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’d better go back to English Lit 101. While the outcome of the novel is never in doubt, getting there is mildly amusing. Like the famous character she portrays, or like any good Brit Chick Lit heroine for that matter, Jazz is cleverly outspoken. Her ironic diatribe on the frailties of the female sex is a hilarious modernization of the source. She carries the banner of feminism forward, even if it’s almost as futile in the 21st century as in the 19th:

“God, listen to you two,” said Jazz. “Anyone would think your brains turned to jelly in the presence of a man. Does the word emancipation mean anything to you? Women burnt their bras for you, you know.”
“Why” asked George, nonplussed. “Were they planning to wear backless dresses?”
“If anyone burnt my Wonderbra, I’d boil their heads,” said Mo.
Jazz put her head in her hands.

While many of the scenes are closely based on the original - Harry offers Jazz a ride home, Jazz turns down Harry’s first proposal - it’s doubtful that Elizabeth Bennett ever called Darcy a “total fuckwit of the highest order.” Jazz is allowed to be much more proactive and forward than Elizabeth Bennett could have ever imagined, and it’s possible that somewhere, Jane Austen is giving a silent, approving wink.

But, unlike Jenna Starborn, Sharon Shinn’s futuristic version of Jane Eyre, Melissa Nathan’s version of P & P doesn’t provide an unusual setting or other distinct flavor, and thus offers little that would enable the reader to see the classic in a new light. Nathan is so busy trying to fit all of the plot’s rich details into a brief 275 page book that she skimps egregiously on the secondary characters’ personality and development. Subplots are introduced, then discarded without being fully addressed.

Melissa Nathan is a competent writer, but I wonder if she can fully develop her own novel, not one whose plot is already etched in stone. Can she be creative enough to write all of her own material, including plot and characters? I am curious enough to check out her next release, so I’m giving this one a qualified recommendation.

--Susan Scribner


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