To review a book with Jane Austen at its heart is, for a passionate Austen fan, a risky endeavor. The subject is powerfully attractive, but the risk of disappointment is huge: few writers have the requisite respect and skill to follow in Austen’s footseps. In Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart, Nashville resident Beth Pattillo passes the test with a romance that will appeal to non-Austenites, as well.
Claire Prescott, in her own way, could be an Austen heroine. Having lost her parents in a car accident when she was eighteen, she shouldered the task of raising her younger sister, Missy—a role she has yet to relinquish despite the fact that Missy is now an adult. When Missy’s pregnancy prevents her from attending a Jane Austen seminar in Great Britain, Claire offers to present the paper herself. After all, she’s just lost her own job, and her boyfriend is such a sports fanatic he might not even notice she’s left the country. It’s no surprise that Claire doesn’t believe in fate: “No, the only thing I believed in was the randomness of life. Tragic, random events that defined one’s life and shaped one’s character.”
But Oxford changes things for Claire. She meets a fellow conference participant who is—of course—tall, dark, and handsome. He’s also haughty, in classic Darcyesque fashion. Claire is stunned when he appears attracted to her. Then she encounters an eccentric elderly woman who insists she possesses fragments of an early draft of Pride and Prejudice and that there is a group of people, the Formidables, who have kept such Austen papers secret for generations. Is this claim true, or is the woman suffering from dementia? Either is possible. But in true chick-lit style, Claire not only solves this mystery, but also discovers what she truly wants from life.
Claire is a sympathetic protagonist, someone most readers will identify with. She has behaved honorably, even heroically, all her life but just can’t seem to find her place, and she must face the possibility that self sacrifice might also be a tad selfish. As one seminar participant notes, “Real courage, Austen shows us, is not in overcoming external threats or forces. No, the most difficult kind of courage is the kind we must find to know and understand our own hearts.”
This is an engaging book. Pattillo does a more-than-creditable job of imitating Austen’s style: the manuscript pages are just as much fun to read as the actual novel, and Austen fans may be disappointed to learn there is no such manuscript in reality. (As far as anyone knows.) But this charming story of a woman finding love in Oxford just may inspire readers to return to Austen herself.
Beth Pattillo will read from Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on February 11 at 7 p.m.