As promised, I’m doing a co-review with my sister! We both read Shannon Hale’s books Austenland and Midnight in Austenland, two romances that center on the fictional vacation place where visitors dress and act like characters from a Jane Austen novel. Rather than a formal review, we decided to discuss our thoughts about both books. So be forewarned: There are spoilers for both books ahead!
Monica: To start off with, have you read any other Shannon Hale books?
Melanie: Princess Academy, right? And Goose Girl?
Monica: Yes. I’ve read those and also Book of a Thousand Days, and the two graphic novels she wrote with her husband. I thought it was interesting because most of what I know about Shannon Hale is her YA/children’s fiction. She usually writes stories with strong but flawed female MCs that give a darker twist to lesser-known fairy tales. So I felt like these adult fiction books were really different!
Melanie: Yeah, it’s almost like these books (well, the first one anyway) were lighter than what she writes for children. I assume it was because she was going for an Austen feel?
Monica: Yes, which brings me to another question: What did you expect from these books, and how did that differ from what you read?
Melanie: I’ve read Austenland before, and it was pretty much what I expected, a light rom-com thing. So I had every expectation that Midnight in Austenland would feel the same way.
But I was very wrong…
Monica: So I had never read these books before, and I guess I was kind of expecting them to be a little more along the same lines as her YA books, a little darker maybe? Honestly, I really didn’t like the first one very much; I thought it was pretty cheesy.
Also, did you think the whole idea of Austenland a little creepy? I think I would have been good with the historical reenactment part if they hadn’t promised you a fake romance also…
Melanie: It was pretty cheesy, but I liked that about it. It was just a nice, sweet, entirely implausible book. It did seem a little emotionally manipulative of the women who came, though.
I just got frustrated with the protagonist in the first book because I felt like she really didn’t understand the dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy for the first half of Pride and Prejudice.
Monica: What do you mean? Like she expected to fall in love and have it be perfect immediately?
Melanie: No, like how she was so angry at Henry and thought he was such a jerk, and kept comparing him to Darcy at the end of Pride & Prejudice. Like, “Oh, he’s such a jerk, he’s not really a Darcy, he’s just rude.” It was like she didn’t see that he was being first half of P&P Darcy.
Monica: I guess the audience is supposed to see the parallels between him and Darcy when the MC doesn’t.
Melanie: Yeah, I guess it was to make the love story feel like P&P, but I felt like she should have been more self-aware, being such a huge fan of Austen. It was almost like she kept forgetting he was an actor playing a role.
Monica: Yes! That was the worst part to me, in both books. If you’re into historical reenactment, that’s awesome! It sounds super fun. But the idea that this was kind of a resort mostly for bored wives looking for romance felt really creepy. Like, you paid a ton of money to dress up and play pretend, why do you keep thinking this is real?
Melanie: Exactly! Like, in one scene, they’d be totally unable to get into character and feeling super awkward, and then in the next scene, you couldn’t even tell that they weren’t actually living it.
Monica: So my next question is basically book 1 vs. book 2. What did you think? I was surprised at how different they felt!
Melanie: Right? I really thought they’d only be as different as two of Austen’s books. I kind of thought that was the point. I think she was going for Northanger Abbey with the second one, but Northanger Abbey did not actually have a murder…
Monica: I actually liked the second one a lot better because 1) I thought Charlotte had a better grip on her life and 2) I’m addicted to mysteries and I liked that this book was a little less romance-focused.
Melanie: I think I liked the first one better. I felt like I could identify more with Jane than with Charlotte, because I know more about being obsessed with romances in books than I do about being cheated on and having kids. Also, I don’t think I like mysteries very much because I am a wimp. I kept getting creeped out in the second one. Basically any time Charlotte wandered the house by herself, and when she had to go to sleep in the dark and her door wouldn’t lock. I kept thinking of a Jane Eyre adaptation I saw once where Jane was laying in bed and then lightning flashed and then the insane wife was there.
Monica: It was kind of a big leap from straightforward romance to suddenly a dead body! And a murderer running around!
Melanie: That was the biggest problem for me. I just reading along, and then all of a sudden, wait! That murder was real! And there’s crazy people!
Monica: Reading the second book did give me a little more sympathy for Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice. Life as an upper class lady would have been pretty boring except for all the balls and social gatherings… and murders!
Melanie: That’s a good point. Although, what’s up with this “let’s put on a play!” “let’s play a game called Murder!” Jane got way cheated out of evening entertainment in her stay.
Monica: The one thing I liked less about the second book was the romance itself. Not that I disliked Eddie (or Reginald), but I felt a little strange about the deus ex machina ending where she had to stay in the country because of the murder trial, and magically her kids were fine with it?
Melanie: I really liked the buildup to the romance in the second book. I thought it was sweet how they were friends during the whole time and everything. But yeah. It all worked out veeeeery conveniently in the second book. Like, she didn’t even have to see the crappy stepmom or anything!
Monica: So my last question/discussion is about the implications of Austenland. Would you go if there was a real one? Is the forced romance creepy? (spoiler alert: yes) Did you find it weird in the first book how Jane was so desperate to find love that her aunt died and left her a trip to Austenland?
Melanie: I think Austenland would be fun in real life if there were more guests and fewer actors. Like if the hosts were actors, but you could bring a group of friends, or your significant others, and just do historical reenactment, I think that would be more fun and less creepy.
Monica: That sounds great! I do like the idea of historical reenactment. I felt like Miss Charming was the epitome of the so-called “Ideal Client,” at least in a pessimistic way. Like she was so starved for affection and distraction that she was willing to live in a literal fantasy world, letting this gay guy fake fall in love with her for months on end. So I thought it was interesting that Jane and Charlotte came to heal their romantic wounds. I feel like in real life it would just be a bunch of Austen fangirls, not nearly so much drama!
Melanie: Yeah, I did appreciate that we got to know Miss Charming better in the second book and she got a nice resolution. That’s probably what all the other vacations were like, when the actors didn’t accidentally fall in love…
Monica: Any other thoughts about these books to wrap it up?
Melanie: Hmm. As I was reading Austenland, I thought it was really interesting how much Jane cared about everyone’s opinions. Even though she knew they were actors, she still really wanted them to like her.
Monica: Good point… It’s kind of a clue to her whole approach to life. Thanks for reviewing these books with me!
Melanie: Thank you! I never would have read the second one otherwise!