Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen
2009, 473 pages
World War II is over, and Maggie Joyce, reluctant to settle down in her small hometown of Minooka, Pennsylvania, sets her sights abroad and ends up working in London. One weekend, Maggie and a friend leave the city and visit Montclair, which is rumored to have been the home of the real-life Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. As Maggie unravels the similarities between Jane Austen's characters and their real-life counterparts, she forms a deep friendship with Jack and Beth Crowell, who know more about the basis for Austen's story than they initially let on, and ends up entangled in a love story of her own - torn between her American former-pilot boyfriend, Rob, and the Crowell's too-good-to-be-true son, Michael.
I added this one to my wishlist after reading a review by Anna at Diary of an Eccentric. Another Austen spinoff, I really liked that this one used Austen's characters as part of a (more) modern story, rather than trying to retell it or give a prequel/sequel. The premise of this story is that the characters of Pride and Prejudice were based on real people, and the real story behind Austen's novel is revealed through letters and diaries as Maggie makes her way through post-World War II England.
I enjoyed reading about life in England during this time period; the details Simonsen provides about Maggie's life in London, and even what it was like during the war through the histories of other characters, was very interesting and one of my favorite aspects of the book. I also thought that the characters were all really well developed and easily sympathized with their stories. Simonsen is a good writer and does a good job of developing relatable characters.
The action of this book is derived from learning about the true history of the story of Pride and Prejudice and from learning the backstories of the characters moreso than on actual plot action, especially for the first two thirds of the book, and although it sometimes got tiresome having so little action in the present, overall I enjoyed reading about these characters and their observations of life in England during and after both World Wars.
On the other hand, it was a little jarring that both the "true" story of Pride and Prejudice and the histories of the main characters were never told in chronological order. In some cases this made sense - the history behind the marriage of Jack and Beth Crowell isn't something they'd tell a stranger - but other times it was confusing and felt contrived, especially the order in which letters from the characters in Pride and Prejudice were revealed. It was also sometimes hard to keep all of the characters straight. Simonsen includes a list of the characters from Pride and Prejudice matched to their "real" counterparts in Searching for Pemberley, but it was still hard to keep all the names straight, including the characters in the present.
Overall, I think this is one of the better Austen spinoffs and I enjoyed reading Maggie's story and observing life in post-World War II England. The strengths of this book were the writing, the setting, and the character development, and in some ways I think the Pride and Prejudice aspect almost took away from this. I could have read a book just about Maggie, Rob, Michael, and the Crowells in post-World War II England, although the diary excerpts and letters did appeal to the Austen fanatic in me. Bottom line - I'd recommend this one for its characters and setting, but with the warning that it's not particularly plot-heavy and can feel like it's rambling at times.