The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay finds lifelong friends going on vacation to a manor in Bath, England, for a Jane Austen-themed experience. Mary Davies, from whose point of view the story is told, is an engineer, not a Romantic. In fact, all her mother’s Austen books were given to her friend, Isabel Dwyer, who is lively, vivacious, and well-versed in all things Austen. Isabel has some sharp edges, though, and the two friends have been somewhat on the outs for a time. But Isabel begs/drags/insists that Mary go, and as so often happen, Mary concedes.
While at this Austen experience, guests are to choose a character from one of Austen’s books to portray and to dress in Regency outfits provided by the manor. There are a few rough spots until Isabel has some sort of mental issue, forgets who she is, and believes she really is the character she’s portraying. She’s actually much easier to get along with, though, and some things come out that help Mary put together some of the issues that they’ve had. On the other hand, other issues concerning the guy Mary is interested in come out as well, leaving her feeling betrayed.
The lost memory issue is mentioned on the back of the book, and I wondered how the author was going to pull that off when it seems likely someone in that condition would be taken to the hospital immediately. But the explanation for why they stay on at the manor seemed plausible. I also had a hard time figuring Isabel out when some times she seemed like Mary’s best-ever friend, and other times she seemed condescending and even haughty. I thought perhaps the back-and-forth was going to be a precursor or related to whatever caused the memory loss. That did not turn out to be the case, at least not directly, but it was explained eventually.
I have read all of Reay’s books and enjoyed them to varying degrees, but I have to confess, this is not a favorite. The premise sounded fun – how great would it be to actually go on an Austen-themed vacation like this?! And all of Reay’s books have a plethora of literary allusions, fun for any reader of classics. Obviously the ones this time were all connected to Austen books.
Two themes in the book have to do with various ways people “escape,” and with vision – lack of seeing things clearly, etc.
But the writing this time just seemed — maybe a little uneven to me. I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. I didn’t “get” a key factor until the discussion questions after the book, which was probably my own fault.
And then, Reay’s first book was definitely in the Christian or at least inspirational fiction category, but it seems her later books get further away from that category. I don’t recall anything relating at all to Christianity or faith in this book, though it’s possible it’s there and I have forgotten it. But if it’s there, it’s small. Maybe this is meant as a general fiction or romance, I am not sure. There was a comment between Mary and her boyfriend about her chest that totally didn’t need to be there – though it was mild compared to secular standards. And there was a fair bit of alcohol consumption – I know there are Christians with varying degrees of conviction about this issue, and I know alcohol was consumed in the Austen books, but it just seemed like that element was detrimental to me personally.
But all in all it’s an enjoyable story, especially as things come together in the end, and as the discussion questions pulled more of the story together for me.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)