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Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey - Val McDermid The plot for this book is identical to the original Northanger Abbey. In fact, the book is basically just the original, modernized sentence by sentence. Surprisingly, I really liked that about it. I didn’t love the original book. I probably wouldn’t re-read the first book. Yet something about a retelling that just changes the setting while staying otherwise true to the source material appeals to me. This does, of course, mean that the plot was still largely nonexistent. Unlike Joanna Trollope’s writing in the Sense and Sensibility retelling for the Austen project, Val McDermid’s writing didn’t match how I imagine Austen would write if she were alive today. However, she did keep the writing tricks I liked the most from Austen’s writing in Northanger Abbey. This included her humorous under-selling of the heroine, her occasional breaking of the fourth wall, and her impassioned speeches in defense of the novel.

I was surprised to find that there were some things I liked even better in the retelling than in the original. I love Austen’s writing and the way we learn about social mores of the time, but the writing about places isn’t especially descriptive. In McDermid’s version, the setting was almost a character, with great descriptions of the film festival taking place, the local culture, the landscape, and the weather. I also thought McDermid did a fantastic job modernizing this story. References to social media didn’t feel at all jarring, something I find very few authors can accomplish for me. I also thought the modernization helped make some characters more relatable. In the original, some things that were socially acceptable in Austen’s time come across as rude now and sometimes a joke a character is telling is harder to get because of the archaic language. I also thought the references to modern books were a lot of fun.

There were a few changes from the original which I didn’t like as well. Being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers, there was an occurrence which caused some opinions about LGBT individuals to be expressed by both the characters and the narrator. While I got the impression that the author was trying to be politically correct and generally pro LGBT rights, I think what she wrote could have used some tweaks to make sure there was nothing that could seem offensive. I also strongly disliked the ending which McDermid completely made up in which she basically says “it’s ok that there’s no point to this story, because it is not the job of fiction to teach us”. Although Austen was clearly making the point that we shouldn’t confuse fiction with reality, I hope she would never have been so silly as to say that fiction has nothing to teach us. As a great believer in the ability of both fiction and non-fiction to educate, I found this a profoundly unsatisfying ending to the story. I would, never-the-less, recommend this to fan’s of the original, since it’s a fun way of experiencing the story for the first time all over again.

This review first published on Doing Dewey.