Yes, yes, I know. You want the recipe for the mushroom stroganoff I was experimenting with last week. I will get there, I promise. But while you’re waiting, how about another book review?
I first read Thoroughly Modern Charlotte: Romance, Third Millennium Style, in the middle of 2015, shortly after it was released. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the time – maybe a modern continuation of Pride and Prejudice, with Charlotte Lucas in the starring role? – and at first I found myself trying to associate each of the characters with a corresponding one from Austen’s classic. This works to an extent (upon second reading, to a large extent, really), but the novel is best taken as its own creation, paying homage to, but not recreating, the original.
Since then, I have also had the great pleasure of meeting the author, Beth Massey. Over a lovely lunch in Chicago last winter, I discovered that the deeply intelligent aura permeating the novel is not accidental. Ms. Massey is as charming and smart as her characters and the world they inhabit, and her passion for matters literary and political comes through both in her conversation and her writing.
And so, as I decided to start posting a few more book reviews in between recipes, I felt drawn to reread and write about Thoroughly Modern Charlotte. I enjoyed the novel the first time I read it. I enjoyed it more the second time. Nuances and references that I had missed on my first reading now opened up to me, and the world Ms. Massey has created took on greater dimension. This is a romance, yes, but it is not fluff. There is stuff to chew on in the text, as chewy as the mushrooms I promise I’ll cook within a couple of weeks. And so, without further ado, here’s my review.
Thoroughly Modern Charlotte: Romance, Third Millennium Style, by Beth Massey
I have to start by saying that this book is not for everyone. If you like your heroines chaste and demure, paragons of elegance with no faults, and pure as the driven snow, this book is not for you. If you like your heroes dashing and alpha, thick dark hair blowing in the wind, the sort who will not accept no for an answer, this book is not for you. If you want a quick read, one that does not challenge in any way, one that does not invite you to consider political and personal motivations outside your comfort zone, this book is not for you. Likewise, if you are hoping for a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, with an arch and witty Elizabeth and a brooding and honourable Darcy, this book is not for you.
If, on the other hand, you want an intelligent novel, full of literary and cultural allusions, some explicit and some more veiled, with a flawed and self-assured heroine seeking her own destiny, and a hero with big ears and bigger secrets, keep reading. If you want a novel which alludes to Jane Austen’s classic, without recasting it in modern terms, keep reading. If you want a novel in which the main character sees her family and friends through Jane Austen’s lens, but does not necessarily even want a modern incarnation of Pemberley, keep reading.
Charlotte Otis is a left-leaning literary scholar who manages her family’s small chain of book shops in New York City and who secretly publishes JAFF, but who wants more. After a fight with her boyfriend, a fight which involves her best friend and a somewhat bewildering array of other acquaintances, she takes a serious look at her life and decides to make some major changes. One of these changes involves swearing off men for a while; another involves a new job in England. Enter the hero: Jonathan Holmes is the answer to many girls’ dreams, sensible and educated, and an earl to boot, but not necessarily Charlotte’s. After some awkward early encounters, they discover they rather like each other despite their differences, but Charlotte insists on sticking to her resolution (no men) and Jon has something he needs to tell her – something he knows she won’t like. And, of course, the longer he waits, the worse the fallout!
Unlike many novels that riff on this trope, the motivations behind keeping the secrets are sensible – at least as seen through Jon’s eyes – and his decisions rational. All too often, the reader of such romances rolls her eyes and yells at the characters, “just say five words to each other and it’s all resolved!” Not so here. It is refreshing to see the character mull over his choices and do what he thinks best, even knowing that the consequences will not be pleasant.
There is a full panoply of secondary characters who round out the lives of our main couple. We get a sense of them as real people in a real world, with friends, colleagues, cousins and other acquaintances, and each of these secondary characters is as fleshed out as our main two. These characters are as vital to the resolution of the drama as are the protagonists.
This novel is not perfect. Perhaps the secondary characters, fascinating as they are, are too fully developed. The first section of the book revolves around them as much as around Charlotte, almost to the point where I wanted to take notes to keep track of who was who and how they all interacted with each other. Each could easily star in his or her own story, and there is at least one who I wish had his own tale.
As well, there are some issues in editing, although I suspect they are more artifacts of some formatting problem than actual mistakes, such as missed quotation marks and similar glitches. These are a bit distracting, but not enough to spoil the enjoyment of the novel.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a well-written book with interesting and real characters that will make you think and possibly reassess your expectations, dive right into Thoroughly Modern Charlotte. You won’t be disappointed!
You can read more about Ms. Massey on her author’s page on Amazon, here.