BOOK REVIEWS     George Justice, Editor

Austen for Singletons

Sex and Sensibility

By Rosemarie Santini. Saint Books, 2005.
256 pp. Paperback.

Dating Mr. Darcy: A Smart Girl’s
Guide to Sensible Romance

by Sarah Arthur. Tyndale Publishers, 2005.
xxiv + 192 pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Nora Nachumi.

We might as well face it: Jane Austen is dead. This fact has caused a great deal of inconvenience for those of us who wish that she had left us many more novels. Austen fans, however, are an ingenious lot. Over the past several years, a number have written (and more of us have bought) books infused with the “spirit” of Austen. Sex and Sensibility by Rosemarie Santini and Dating Mr. Darcy by Sarah Arthur are two such endeavors. Both use Austen as a lens through which they examine romance in the twenty-first century. However, each owes its allegiance to entirely different definitions of “spirit.”

Spirit can mean “life force” and in Santini’s case, this force is decidedly sexual. As its title suggests, Sex and Sensibility is a novel that is equally indebted to Sex and the City and to Jane Austen’s fiction. This pairing makes a great deal of sense. Both concern the romantic experiences of marriageable young women; both offer portraits of specific communities; and both—with varying degrees of success—are rife with social satire. Santini pays homage to both inspirations via the story of Elizabeth Parsons, a freelance film critic, who negotiates dating in twenty-first-century Manhattan while yearning to live her life like one of Jane Austen’s heroines. In practical terms, this means that Lizzie spends a great deal of time having sex (à la Sex and the City), or thinking about it while wondering, “what would Jane Austen do?” In her spare time, Lizzie attends meetings of JANO, a group that believes that “Jane Austen is part of human nature, that if you read her novels as a sort of bible your life will be replenished and soulful.” For Lizzie, this means figuring out how she can overcome her own intimacy issues (her father, you see, abandoned her when she was a child) in order to achieve happiness with her editor-in-chief, Harry Archer, to whom we are introduced as he performs oral sex on the narrator. “His lips,” Lizzie tells us, “were sort of exploring a part of my anatomy not usually offered for public consumption—or should I say pubic consumption? “Except for those who relish bad puns, lines such as these are neither sexy nor funny. Neither is the book, which suffers from a lack of adequate characterization (Lizzie’s ironic sensibility is primarily manifested by her use of “veree” for “very”). In the end, Lizzie’s intimacy issues are quickly resolved via a letter in which her father apologizes for his past behavior (he was an alcoholic, you see). No longer distrustful of men, Lizzie finds happiness and GREAT SEX (!!!) in Harry’s arms (Lizzie likes exclamation points). To be fair, Sex and Sensibility does not pretend to be great literature; it aspires, I think, to be light frothy fun. However, in channeling Austen via Sex and the City, Sex and Sensibility ultimately demonstrates that sometimes the parts are greater (and funnier) than the whole.

While Santini’s characters spend much of their time rolling around in various states of undress, Sarah Arthur’s readers are encouraged to stay fully clothed at all times. Subtitled The Smart Girl’s Guide to Sensible Romance, Dating Mr. Darcy takes as its premise that “the pursuit of romantic attachments in the twenty-first century is eerily similar to what young people went through in Jane Austen’s time.” In the introduction, Arthur proudly identifies herself as one of those Austen fans (and members of The Republic of Pemberley) whose life was changed by Colin Firth’s performance in the BBC/A&E adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Thus inspired, Arthur demonstrates that the novel (and the series) can be used as a guide for single women who are attempting to negotiate their way through the “Relationship Market,” panties intact.

The book is divided into several sections, all of which use the novel as—to quote Santini—“a sort of bible” for living. In a chapter called “Family,” Arthur observes that Elizabeth and Darcy’s familial relationships determine much about how they treat each other. In “Friends,” she uses Lydia’s story to underscore the importance of maintaining healthy friendships while dating. Arthur’s goal, she explains, is to teach readers how to evaluate their partners’ “Darcy Potential” or “DP,” their own “Elizabeth Potential” or “EP,” and (you’ve probably guessed it) the “Pemberley Potential” or “PP” of the relationship. To this end, she follows observations about the novel with questions like: “What about your prospective Mr. Darcy? How well does he stay in touch with his loved ones?” Dating Mr. Darcy also concludes with a workbook in which the reader is asked specific questions about her own character, family, friends, and faith and that of her “Darcy” in order to gain a better understanding of herself and her relationship.

Arthur is a perceptive reader of Austen and some will find her book helpful and entertaining; others, however, (this reviewer included) will be put off by the fact that, in this book, the “spirit” of Austen is decidedly Evangelical. “Take care, girlfriend,” writes Arthur.

Just because a guy steps inside the building for an hour on Sunday morning… doesn’t mean he follows Jesus during the other hundred and sixty sevenhours of the week. You need to consider: “Does this guy walk his talk? He speaks all kinds of religious language, but is he really living like he believes it?”

Unlike Austen, Arthur is determined to preach by the pen. In her opinion, the “most awesome guy [is] a committed Christian who lives what he believes.” Statements such as these will pose a quandary for many readers: is Arthur suggesting that our own Mr. Darcys need to be Christian? Must we convert in order to discover our inner Elizabeth Bennets? To be fair, Arthur may be writing for a select audience composed of Christians, the thick-skinned and the forgiving. She may be unconscious of the bias that permeates her book or not mind it at all. Regardless of her intentions, however, by expressing such narrow-mindedness in a book inspired by a novel entitled Pride and Prejudice, Arthur has created an irony worthy of Austen.

Nora Nachumi is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Stern College for Women/Yeshiva University, New York City. She is writing about Austen criticism, popular culture, and the Internet.

JASNA News v.21, no. 3, Winter 2005, p. 26

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