Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park
Lily Berry is having a rough time. Her boyfriend, Martin, broke up with her and, as the story begins, she is stalking him, driving by his house repeatedly in the evenings. She is unable to let go. She holds a business degree, but recently lost her job when her boss discovered the pile of books in her cubicle and realized the reason for her costly errors. Lily’s future is very uncertain. Her problems are exacerbated by her lingering sadness about her mother’s death. Shortly before she died, her mother had her wedding ring and some other jewelry remade into two cross pendants which she gave to Lily and her sister, Karen. Lily prizes that necklace above all other possessions because it helps her continue to feel connected to her mother.
When Martin and his new girlfriend catch her spying on them, Lily blurts out that she wanted to say good-bye because she is going to England. Until that precise moment, she did not know herself that she would accept her friend and bookstore owner Vera’s offer to accompany her to the Literature Live summer festival. There, Lily can immerse herself in Jane Austen’s life and writings, and be in the company of other people who, like her, live in books. She decides to sell all of her belongings in order to raise enough money for the trip, but does not pay attention when movers come to collect her furniture for the buyer. She inadvertently allows them to leave with the bookcase in which she keeps all the books her mother collected and read to her as she was growing up. Adding to her distress is her sense that she has now also lost her mother’s voice.
Arriving in England with Vera, Lily learns that the actress who was not scheduled to show up — and whose part Lily would be able to play — has indeed arrived. They will be roommates. Lily wants to act, but is no match for the professional actors who have been hired for the season. But Lily is resourceful and creative. Vera and her husband, Nigel, love the idea of tea-theatre presented every Wednesday afternoon by amateurs. So do the tourists who flock to the festival, and Lily’s afternoon productions are surprisingly successful.
But will her budding romance with Willis Somerford, an Anglican deacon who is supposedly working on his thesis, be as successful or fulfilling? And as the summer draws to a close and the festival ends, what does the future hold for the festival itself and Lily?
As My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park opens, the protagonist, Lily, is a mystery and not particularly empathetic. She is stalking her ex-boyfriend, having just been fired from her job, mourning her mother and adrift. Selling everything she owns and running off to England for the summer with no promise from Vera that, once she arrives, she will have a secure place as part of the festival staff hardly seems like a prudent move. But Vera cares for Lily and ensures that she has housing — even if it is with Bets, a spoiled party-girl who is only there because her father, “The Wallet,” is one of the festival’s largest benefactors.
More importantly, it seems that the future of the festival is very much in doubt, largely due to the fact that Lady Weston, who owns Newton Priors, where the festival takes place, is dying. Magda, one of the festival organizers, a professor from Michigan, is scheming to wrench control of the festival away from Nigel by securing funding from the university where she teaches. So upon learning that Lily holds a business degree, Vera assigns her the task of drawing up a new lease that Lady Weston will, hopefully, execute before expiring, as well as a business plan that will demonstrate the festival’s ongoing viability. The story is somewhat confusing in that it seems Lily is supposed to be focused upon the business side of the festival, yet she is determined to act. So she is allowed to pursue her creative ideas, especially her tea-theatre venture. Nonetheless, Vera presses Lily into service when the time comes to seriously pursue renewal of the lease or convince the new owner of the home that the festival can be a profitable business venture for him.
Bets, Vera, Nigel, and Magda are among the cast of eccentric supporting players, each with their own summer drama. When Lily first arrives, she is unsure of herself and her abilities, but determined to succeed. Her first attempts at acting are deplorable, but not entirely due to a lack of talent. Rather, she has trouble concentrating because her sister, Karen, sends her a series of emails that only exacerbate Lily’s despair about the death of her mother. It seems that her father is quickly remarrying and his wife-to-be has been cleaning out the family home,disposing of their mother’s belongings. As Karen discovers evidence that her father has known the woman for many years, Lily must cope with the realization that her father has led a double life. Worse, Bets helps herself to her roommate’s belongings and manages to lose Lily’s beloved cross necklace. Lily’s repeated requests that Bets retrieve meet only with offers of a replacement when it is, of course, completely irreplaceable.
Venturing up to the attic one day, Lily happens upon Willis, working diligently at his laptop. Their daily meetings there become a ritual, with Lily looking forward to sitting in the third-story window seat, getting to know Willis. He is compassionate, but not forthcoming about his own life, telling her only that he must make a decision. She assumes he is referring to the ordination that will follow the completion of his thesis. Or is there another big decision that Willis must make?
The book gets off to a slow start. As noted above, Lily is, at the outset, not particularly likable. Both her ex-boyfriend and her best female friend suggest that she seek professional help in order to address the issues with which she is wrestling. However, as more and more of her family history is revealed, Lily becomes more sympathetic. Once she settles into the festival and the large cast of supporting characters comes into focus, the story gains momentum and reader interest. Jones says she set out to right a story about “a woman who breaks her cycle of unhappiness.” Indeed, that is where My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park succeeds. As the summer wears on, Lily becomes increasingly self-aware, noting the location and reactions of “My Jane Austen,” as she calls her. Jane functions much like Jiminy Crickett, an ever-present conscience just visible in the periphery to Lily alone, who guides Lilly as she grows from a depressed, lonely girl lacking in self-confidence to a wiser, if still sad young woman who is at least capable of making some decisions about her future. Jones envisioned Lily’s relationship with her invisible companion as the embodiment of of her idea “of the dynamics of a contemporary woman’s relationship with Jane Austen, taken to its end.” However the reader chooses to interpret the literary device, it works, providing Lily with a clever and interesting way to gauge her own behavior, as well as judge and react to the conduct of those around her, and helps move the story forward.
Real self-knowledge requires no ever-present tour guide through life, a fact Lily eventually learns. When she becomes empowered, able to stand up for herself and the fact that she is much like Fanny, the lead character in Austen’s Mansfield Park — and happily so — she knows that she no longer needs “My Jane Austen.”
. . . My Jane Austen vanished. Gone. I bent to retrieve the shawl and restore it to my shoulders but sh didn’t reappear. I kept blinking hopefully, searching for her in my peripheral vision. Whoever she was, a projection of myself, my mother, bits of the great writer thrown in, she never returned after that moment.
Jones has crafted an original, refreshing ending to Lily’s story that is logical, even though it will probably not satisfy every reader. But there is no doubt that by the end of the book, Lily has learned a great deal about herself, life, and Jane Austen. She is ready to, as her friend Omar advised her as the summer drew to a close, connect with the world and other people. She no longer wants to live in a book, because she realizes that inasmuch as she can get “into Jane Austen’s mind — at least my interpretation of her mind — I can never get anyone else in there with me. And that is the problem. Life in a novel is a lonely proposition.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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One lucky reader, selected at random, will receive a copy of My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park, graciously provided by the author.
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