Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I, like many others, am always a sucker for anything that remotely has to do with Jane Austen, so I was excited to see the book Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay.  I was expecting it to be set in the time of Austen's novels, or to feature some of the characters.  I was therefore a bit surprised to discover that this book is only very slightly connected to Austenmania -- namely, the main character, Samantha Moore, is a fan of Austen's work.  Otherwise, people expecting Austen-like characters and situations are in for a shock!

The novel is set in modern times, and features a young girl who's had a very difficult childhood.  Samantha was in and out of foster homes as a child, and after a period of time on the streets as a runaway, she is taken in at Grace House, a home for abandoned children.  Throughout her upbringing, she's always felt alone and rootless, so she's taken refuge in her favorite books -- especially those by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.  She often uses the words of the characters in these books to avoid giving away too much of her self, and as a way of keeping people at a distance.  She eventually graduates from college and moves out of Grace House to work in a corporate job, even though she was offered a scholarship to go to graduate school.  Her inability to form personal bonds and her standoffish personality soon get her fired from her job, and she decides to move back to Grace House and look at the possibility of accepting the scholarship.  She knows this is her last chance, because soon she will be too old to live at Grace House.

She finds that the scholarship is still available, but there are some strings attached.  Rather than allowing her to study what she wants, she must study journalism.  With no other options, she accepts.  Also, she is required to write frequent letters detailing her progress in the program to her benefactor, known only as "Mr. Knightley."  The letters to him form the vast majority of the book. 

During her time back at Grace House, she tutors younger children and also begins running with Kyle, a troubled teenager whose upbringing mirrors her own.  Even though her immediate problems are solved, Sam soon finds that her reluctance to open herself up to the world also shows in her journalism assignments.  Her professor, Dr. Johnson, tries to encourage her, but at the same time lets her know that if she doesn't get away from impersonal, perfunctory writing, she will be kicked out of the program.  In the meantime, she struggles with boyfriend issues, personal safety problems, and plenty of self doubt. 

She eventually moves into an apartment and meets the author Alex Powell, a graduate of the same program she's attending.  She's thrilled to be in the presence of such a famous and attractive author, but finds him a bit hard to read.  They eventually become friends and bond over the friendship with a retired professor and his wife.

While I enjoyed most of the book, I did have problems with parts of it.  How likely is it that someone is going to contact you with an offer of free tuition, a paid apartment, a new wardrobe, a computer for schoolwork, etc. and all they ask in return is the occasional letter?  I'm sure we'd all love to have that  happen to us!  And isn't it odd that not only Sam, but most of the people she encounters, have memorized every English and French novel from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and can identify any quote from them instantly?  Sam was also very prickly and unpleasant most of the time (not that she didn't have good reason), but no one ever seemed put out or angry with her unreasonable behavior. 

I'm not (unlike everyone in this book) familiar enough with the various plots of Jane Austen's novels to know if this is a modern interpretation of one of the books.  Other than the many quotes and references to characters that we are apparently supposed to know all about, there isn't much of Austen to be found here -- so don't be enticed by the title into thinking this is another Austen knock-off.  The story is pretty bleak and definitely grittily modern. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Dear Mr. Knightley in exchange for this review as part of the BookSneeze program

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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