"The Other Bennet Sister"
By Janice Hadlow. (Henry Holt, 448 pages, $28.)
Jane Austen was most ungenerous to Mary Bennet. The middle of five sisters Austen created for "Pride and Prejudice" was confined to tedious speeches from Fordyce's Sermons and mortifying piano solos. Author Janice Hadlow treats her better. In "The Other Bennet Sister," Hadlow gives Mary a starring role, a spirited character and a story sure to please a market hungry for all things Austen.
Hadlow's debut novel opens much like the original, with the Bennet family's need for men of good fortune who "must be in want of a wife." Studious, socially awkward Mary, "plain - like a boiled potato" - is the least likely to succeed.
Hadlow follows Austen's story at a respectful distance until the happy ending, then strikes out on her own. Life at Longbourn takes a turn that sends Mary shifting among family households like other unmarried women of the era. Rescue comes with her Aunt Gardiner in London. "There she saw what true happiness looked like; and for the first time in her life, she understood what it felt like to be wrapped in its embrace."
She begins to blossom, then meets the earnest Tom Hayward and the insouciant Will Ryder, young men who seem eager for her attention. But are they really? Late-18th-century romance is a web of intrigue, and women are reduced to "petty hints and signals" to make their preferences known. "Why could not relations between men and women be stripped of misunderstanding?"
Austen fans have long been happy to reap the benefits of such misunderstandings, and Hadlow proves adept at delivering plot twists and social commentary deserving of her mentor. She interweaves her remake of Mary with echoes of beloved passages from "Pride and Prejudice" and enjoyable tweaks of some of its characters. The commingling gives the reader the pleasure of rereading an old favorite along with the discovery of a new one.
"Elsey Come Home"
By Susan Conley. (Penguin Random House, 256 pages, $16.)
In the absorbing "Elsey Come Home," out recently in paperback, an American artist in China reflects on the challenges of marriage, motherhood, creativity and early trauma.
Elsey met her sexy, supportive Danish husband, Lukas, on a trip to Beijing after she saw him playing electronic dance music at a club. They fell fast and hard for each other, and she never left. Now they are married and have two young daughters, but the once successful Elsey, struggling as a painter and as a mother, has slipped into alcoholism. A recent thyroid surgery has caused "radiating pain" in her left arm, leaving her further unmoored.
Lukas firmly suggests she take a weeklong yoga retreat in the mountains to get some rest and stop drinking. There she meets other "expats" (as foreigners call themselves, "as if it was Shanghai in 1937") who are dealing with personal turmoil. Elsey also befriends the Chinese artist Mei, whose possessive fellow artist husband is attracting the attention of authorities, as well as cheating on her. Elsey's offer to help Mei puts further strain on her family.
Author Susan Conley, who lived in Beijing for three years, creates a palpable sense of danger and disorientation. She skillfully layers the tension as Elsey reveals more of herself and her past and tries to find her way back "home."
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