12.02.2013

Review: Undressing Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos

Undressing Mr. Darcy
by Karen Doornebos
Berkley Trade
December 3, 2013
368 pages
"If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad."

Vanessa Roberts, Chicago PR maven and known Austen non-enthusiast is tasked by her aging aunt Ella to do what any Austen non-enthusiast might find unthinkable -plan for and host Darcy-esque Julian Chancellor's book tour and visit to the Jane Austen Society of North America, of which Aunt Ella is a founding member. When Julian, who is promoting his book My Year as Mr. Darcy in the hopes of garnering funds and support for the refurbishment of his ancestral home in Chawton, arrives it's all business for Vanessa...or is it? Top Julian and Vanessa's escalating chemistry with her aunt's late-in-life illness, a suitor from another time and genre, Vanessa's somewhat delayed discovery of Austen's appeal, and a journey across the pond and back, and you've got the set-up for what could be yet another great flirtation with Jane Austen.

In 2011, Karen Doornebos debuted on the literary scene with her sweet and none-too-raunchy Definitely Not Mr. Darcy which, in case anyone has missed my numerous mentions of it, I loved. I loved the way that Doornebos took on the romance novel without making it completely gratuitous. I loved how fresh the plot felt, even in the light of comparison with Shannon Hale's Austenland, Laurie Brown's What Would Jane Austen Do? and even Channel 4's "Regency House Party." As a sort-of follow-up to Definitely Not... (the two main characters show up in this one) it's hard to resist the urge to compare the two.

As you might guess from this title, Doornebos has stepped up the raunchy end of things with Undressing Mr. Darcy. Once again, there are two very attractive men vying for the affections of our new main character, and both seem to have their ducks in a row. Really, things couldn't be going greater for Vanessa, a woman whose childhood was difficult and whose adulthood has been mostly work, almost no play, and entirely rooted in a fear of commitment. All told, there are some great allusions to Austen's works in this book including, but not limited to, a sincere effort to draft Vanessa as a sort of Catherine/Marianne hybrid.

Julian Chancellor seems to be the answer to a question that Vanessa has been too-long afraid to ask herself. But where Definitely Not... succeeded, Undressing has unfortunately failed. The former maintained the strong narrative and the stronger protagonist. Chloe fell for the guy, but she didn't let the guy change who she was. Vanessa, unfortunately, is not as strong. Not only does she let Julian change her (don't worry, it's not forever) but, in the author giving in to the genre and giving us these raunchy gratuitous sex scenes (which have their place and time, but this wasn't really it), she has sacrificed the characterizations that we could have had.

As a result, many of the characters and plot points are somewhat juvenile and, frankly, shoddy. Sherry, as Vanessa's new friend, has zero development. Lexi's grind to a halt is too black and white, too easy. We're cheated out of so much. Julian's actions are explained away, but not truly explained. For a good portion of the book you think his backstory might be going in a completely different direction, and I'm fairly sure that this was unintentional. The worst of it, though, was the simple, basic, and unfair transformation of Vanessa from a non-enthusiast to an Janeite.

Yes, she's let the man get to her. That's plain and simple. Sure, she picks up the books and starts watching the movies. Great. All is as it should be. But then she starts wearing pink. And then she starts wearing floral skirts. And then she devolves from the savvy PR workaholic we know into an insipid swearing-on-Sanditon boy-crazy idiot. It would be enough for her to believe herself in love with the man. It would be enough for her to be Austen-hungry. It's a completely different thing to be equating a love of Austen with stupidity, which is what has happened here.

I know this is unintentional. I know that Karen Doornebos has a love for Jane Austen that few could match. That's the really frustrating part of this - I wanted it to be so much better. It could be so much better, because Doornebos' first book was so much better. Definitely Not Mr. Darcy is among my favorite books that I love to savor over and over. But I'm afraid its younger brother just isn't going to make the cut. I'm going to chalk this up to sophomore slump and look forward with anticipation to Doornebos' next effort.

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