Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

In keeping with my fascination with seeing events from various perspectives, I enjoy reading stories that revisit classics from another point of view: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, March by Geraldine Brooks, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka to name a few.  And Jane Austen novels have inspired quite a few authors to write continuations of or variations on their stories.  (My favorite of those is Pamela Aidan's Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy.)

So you'd think a book like Death Comes to Pemberley would be right up my alley, especially with an author as acclaimed as P.D. James. But it just fell a bit flat for me.  In the opening Author's Note, P.D. James acknowledged the difficulty of the task she had set herself:
I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest." No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.
It certainly wasn't a "bad" book by any means.  It had an interesting plot line, continuing relationship tensions from Pride and Prejudice, and satisfies the curiosity of those who have the desire to see how certain characters turned out.  But some of the characters are so different from their incarnation in the original (notably Colonel Fitzwilliam which James directly addresses, but also Charlotte, Georgiana and others) that it's hard to even feel the connection between this novel and the original at times.

Worst of all, dear Lizzie herself seems so different!  That's not entirely a fair complaint.  I was a certainly a different person as a teenager than I was ten years and two children later, and it's not reasonable to expect Lizzie to have remained stagnant for a decade, especially in light of the dramatic change in her circumstances.  With a character as iconic and beloved as the Elizabeth Bennett of Austen's pen, it's still a bit of an unwelcome shock to find her so mellowed.

Is it then too ironic that my greatest complaint about the book is the absence of Lizzie for a large portion of it?

(As a side note, I watched the two-part PBS miniseries of the novel online before reading the book and I will say that Lizzie plays a larger part on the screen than she does on the page, though there seemed to be a bit more marital angst and other liberties taken with the book's plotline in the miniseries.  But I digress.)

Suffice it to say that Death Comes to Pemberley left me conflicted.  If you love Austen and particularly Pride and Prejudice, you might just adore P.D. James's continuation.  And if you love Austen and particularly Pride and Prejudice, you might just absolute despise it.  Or if you love Austen and particularly Pride and Prejudice, it might have left you not at all sure what to think.  Do let me know which camp you fall into, because I'm decidedly in the last.

Death Comes to Pemberley
by P.D. James
ISBN: 9780307959850
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

No comments:

Post a Comment