Pride, Prejudice, and Cheese Grits by Mary Jane Hathaway might sound like a Southern version of Jane Austen’s novel, and indeed it is. Set in the present-day South, it is not a point for point retelling – there are a few differences in characters and plot. But if you’re thinking of P&P while reading it, you’ll recognize a number of plot points and people. This book is the first in Hathaway’s “Jane Austen Takes the South” series. I had read the second book, Emma, Mr. Knightly, and Chili Slaw Dogs, first and then backtracked to read this one.
In this story, Shelby Roswell appreciates history, from old houses to old diaries. In fact, she is a professor of history specializing in the Civil War era working to become tenured. She had written a book with hopes of it propelling her toward her goal, but eminent Civil War expert and writer Ransom Fielding wrote a scathing review of it for a national magazine. And now he’s a visiting guest professor at her college for an entire year. She hopes to avoid him, but at their first meeting, they clash big time, and publicly at that. They each push all the wrong buttons in the other, yet find qualities attractive in each other.
Ransom is, of course, devastatingly handsome, sure of himself, and seemingly a little stuffy at first. He lost both a wife and child, leaving him bitter against God and determined to guard his heart from ever loving another woman.
Of course, following P&P, you know where this is going to go, but it is fun to see how it gets there. Jane from P&P is replaced by Shelby’s roommate, Rebecca, English professor and Jane Austen expert. Ransom’s aunt Margaret Greathouse represents the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Shelby’s family represents Elizabeth’s in a laid-back father, marriage-minded mother, and silly sisters. Mr. Collins and Wickham are combined in a David Bishop.
I’ve seen a couple of reviewers refer to this volume as more preachy than the second book, but I’d have to ask what they mean by “preachy.” To me, a preachy Christian fiction book is more a “lesson” thinly veiled as a story and may entail finger-wagging and implied “You ought…” advice to the reader. I saw none of that here. As I wrote in Why Read Christian Fiction?, you’d expect in this genre to see professing Christian characters doing Christian things like reading their Bibles and trying to figure out how to apply their faith to everyday life. I do find that here in a natural, uncontrived way, such as when Shelby, after a heated encounter with Ransom, wonders why she has a hard time with putting into practice the verse she had read that morning about being swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath when she is around him (though actually it’s not just around him – she tends to blurt things out before speaking to nearly everyone) and, when they finally talk about his wife and child, and she advises him in ways to deal with it. That’s perfectly normal. The author seemed to go the other way in the second book – I remember wondering why it was called Christian fiction when there wasn’t really anything distinctly Christian in it that I could recall. Perhaps she did so in response to criticism in this book, but I’d rather have Christianity displayed as it is here rather than being so subtle it is unobservable.
There were a couple of plot points that didn’t quite make sense to me, but overall the writing was fine. There were a couple of sections I felt didn’t need to be there: for instance, when Shelby is holding her cousin’s baby while talking to Ransom, the baby keeps putting its fist in her cleavage. Sure, babies do things like that, but in a book there was really no reason to draw attention (ours or Ransom’s) to her cleavage. And one character is framed with a fake video of a fake sexual encounter. Sure, there is scandal in P&P when Lizzie’s sister runs off with Wickham, but we are told very little about it. This book doesn’t go into all the specifics of the tape but mentions more than necessary – and I felt the conflict and tension this incident was supposed to create could have been handled in a different way. I’ve seen a couple of reviewers mention a swear word in the book, but I don’t remember any, and I am usually sensitive to that.
But I thought the theme that “love changes us” was nicely brought out, and I enjoyed the ways it changed Ransom and Shelby. And the Austen connections were fun, too.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)