In The Dashwood Sisters Tell All, the third Jane Austen-themed novel by Nashvillian Beth Pattillo, estranged sisters Ellen and Mimi Dodge take a trip to scatter their mother’s ashes in Jane Austen country. This final maternal request is not as surprising as it might seem, for their mother was quite the Austen fan. Their very names are variations on those of the protagonists of Sense and Sensibility, and Ellen and Mimi grew up listening to their mother’s stories about her favorite author. The Dodge sisters are not close, however: for most of their adulthood, they have lived separate lives. Ellen is the loyal daughter who takes care of their mother during her final illness while Mimi can’t face their mother’s decline and stays away.
The will provides one last chance for the sisters to reconcile through a walking tour of Jane Austen country, where they are to scatter their mother’s ashes at the place they find most appropriate. So Ellen and Mimi set off, carrying with them another bequest from their mother: a diary, supposedly that of Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister. They initially suspect it must be a fake, something their mother devised to strengthen their bonding, but the suspicious behavior of others on the tour causes them to wonder. They especially question the motives of the official Austen expert, Mrs. Parrot, whose orange hair and nosy ways trouble Ellen: “[S]omething about Mrs. Parrot didn’t quite ring true. My mother had always had that typical British reserve, and Mrs. Parrot should have displayed the same thing, not such an obvious enthusiasm for meeting us.” When the diary is stolen, Mrs. Parrot becomes the chief suspect, but certainly not the only one.
In true Austenesque fashion, the case of the missing diary is not the only problem the sisters face; there are also problems of the heart to suffer through and solve. Daniel, a man Ellen loved in college and has never forgotten, is on the journey, too, thanks to yet another dying request from Ellen’s mother. Meanwhile, Ethan, a young British aristocrat, and Tom, the older tour leader, are both vying for Mimi’s affections.
Ellen and Mimi are, of course, patterned after Elinor and Marianne of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Ellen is sensible and honorable: “If I had been a more devious person, I would have tried to undermine Daniel’s relationship with Melissa all those years ago,” she thinks to herself. “I would have made a play for him, exploited his feelings for me. But I was my mother’s daughter, and, in a way, Jane Austen’s too. Honor mattered more than anything, and stealing a man from another woman… well, it wasn’t something an honorable woman, an Austen woman, would ever do.” Mimi mirrors the sensibility of Marianne: “I’d meant to be a little more coy. After all, I’d leaped into his car and come to his house late at night, which I’m pretty sure would give most guys the wrong idea, whichever side of the pond they lived on. But he was such a good kisser, and I was so lost in the fantasy of the moment. A handsome, rich British gentleman wanted to romance me, and I intended to let him.”
Readers don’t need to be acquainted with Austen’s works to appreciate The Dashwood Sisters Tell All. The romances and other relationships stand on their own. Still, those who have read Pattillo’s other Austen novels (Jane Austen Ruined My Life and Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart) will appreciate the continuities: the return of Mrs. Parrot and the Formidables; the previously unknown Austen document that sheds light not just on the author’s life but also on the protagonists’; and, of course, those romantic entanglements.
Told in first person by both Ellen and Mimi, The Dashwood Sisters Tell All is a fast, light-hearted read that is a perfect companion for any plane ride or lazy afternoon that presents itself during these summer months.
Beth Pattillo will read from The Dashwood Sisters Tell All at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Brentwood on May 6 at 7 p.m.