Based on the title, my first reaction to this book was to groan. I suspect I’m probably not alone; most Janeites are pretty over blatant attempts to cash in on Austen’s perpetual popularity, and that’s definitely what this book looks like. But I’m happy to say that in fact this is a very nice modern day retelling of Sense and Sensibility. As I said on Twitter, I read a Jane Austen retelling and I did not hate it! On the contrary, I liked it quite a bit. For one thing, it’s not Pride and Prejudice. As much as I do love P&P, Austen did write other books and it’s nice to see one of them being adapted.
There are a few slight spoilers here, but nothing that will be surprising if you’ve already read Sense & Sensibility.
Grace Weston is the only one holding her family together. After her father dies and his entire estate, including the house she and her mother and sister live in, is passed on to his second wife, Grace has to find a way to keep her family from falling apart completely. Hallie Weston doesn’t understand how Grace can be so cold. When they move to Hollywood, Hallie falls in love with a rock star and doesn’t look back. But Grace’s heart is still in San Francisco, with the boy she shouldn’t like.
I very much appreciated the way McDonald preserved a lot of the relationships between characters, while at the same time completely updating them. There’s the girls’ stepmother, Portia, just as ridiculously self-obsessed as Fanny Dashwood. There’s Grace’s rock star boyfriend, who’s definitely a Willoughby. McDonald does a very nice job of taking the situations and people from Sense and Sensibility and changing them, while retaining the flavor of the originals.
The story is divided into alternating sections from Hallie and Grace’s perspectives. It made for an interesting change from S&S, where the focus is so centered on Elinor. While this didn’t bother me, exactly, it did make me wonder why McDonald chose to write her book this way. For me, Grace’s sections were by far more interesting (but then, Marianne has never been my favorite character). The relationship between the two sisters is fairly central to the story, and of course it is about the two gradually coming to appreciate each other. I liked that, despite the romances, McDonald kept the importance of the sisters at the forefront of the story.
I did occasionally feel that McDonald was a bit constrained by her choice to retell Sense & Sensibility so closely. For instance, I didn’t personally buy Dakota’s reasons for leaving Hallie; the record label was for me not an adequate stand-in for Willoughby’s aunt. For the most part, the moments where the original had to be translated into modern motives and situations were handled quite deftly, but the occasional moments when this didn’t work so well stood out.
A final note: Hallie and Grace are described as mixed race. Their mother is black and their father was white. However, beyond a few mentions of other peoples’ reactions to their family, this aspect was largely absent from the story. I could see one side of an argument, which is that their race should be treated simply as normal, and in one sense I do buy that. But on the other hand, the fact that we don’t live in a world where this is the case made me wonder if there shouldn’t have been a more explicit discussion of what this meant for Hallie and Grace. I’d welcome thoughts from other readers.
All in all, this was a very solid retelling of a lesser-known Austen work. I’m glad it’s out there, and I would definitely encourage any Janeites to give it a try.
Book source: public library
Book information: Candlewick Press, 2013; YA
I read this book for the 2013 Cybils. You’ll be able to see all of my Cybils reviews by clicking here.