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Friday, January 24, 2014

BPL Book Club: Death Comes to Pemberley

On Monday, the BPL Book Discussion Group reconvened for a new year of discussions and we began with P.D. James' 2011 bestseller, Death Comes to Pemberley.  From the publisher
A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.
It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.
Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.
Inspired by a lifelong passion for Austen, P. D. James masterfully re-creates the world of Pride and Prejudice, electrifying it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly crafted crime story, as only she can write it.
Before I begin the report, I have to admit that I was nervous about how much we could discuss here.  I was glad to see that Lit Lovers had 24 questions which they had made up that I was so glad to find and use as my guide, but also, my group was really enjoying talking about this book as you will see below.

Let get to the discussion but please note, although I tried very hard to remove most of the spoilers from our notes, there still are some spoilers here:
  • As usual I asked for votes. liked: 6, disliked: 2, so-so: 4.  But I also asked how people felt about the source material Pride and Prejudice. liked: 8, disliked: 1, so-so: 2.  Interestingly the liked and so-so fluctuated a bit, but one of the dislikes was on both.
  • Initial comments; there were a bunch:
    • I saw that this was a sequel of sorts to P&P which I had never read, so I first read the Austen and then read the James.  I loved P&P and as a result, disliked this one.
    • I am also a lover of P&P and appreciated how this novel was written like the Austen original, but I was a so-so vote here because I did not think this was up to James’ standards for a mystery.
    • I am still a like, but I did enjoy this book more the first time I read it.  I had to re-read for this discussion because, although I liked it the first time, it didn’t leave enough of an impression on me to remember the details.
    • I liked concept of not making fun of P&P but rather paying homage.  It was still firmly in the P&P setting and historical times.
    • There was good humor sprinkled throughout this book.  This commenter shared a few funny lines.
    • I thought it was excellent!  It was really similar to Austen’s style and extremely historically accurate.
    • I had fun reading this book; it was as if I was visiting with old friends.
    • I was suspicious of an Austen sequel written by someone else, but it was great.
    • I loved that James brings up characters from other Austen books like Emma and Persuasion.
    • I had never read either PD James or Jane Austen which shocked me since they are both so “classic.”  I read the James first and P&P second and I liked both.
    • I was astonished at how well James mimicked Austen
  • Question: How well did James maintain the characters from the original? Where were they true to Austen and where did they differ?
    • I really liked how much more insight we get into Darcy’s mind.  James uses this novel to explain why he was the way he was in P&P.
    • I especially liked all of the regret he had about sending his sister away.
    • I agree that she keeps to the characters as Austen wrote them, but I did love the twist about Mrs. Younge that James includes here.  That was very PD James, not Austeny at all but I loved it.
    • I did miss Elizabeth here.  In P&P her intelligence and personality shine through, but here she fades into the background.  It is as if she has simply become the mistress of Pemberley.  That is a shame.
    • Jane and Bingley are just as they were in P&P. It was cute.
    • I was excited to see that Mary got married
    • Mr. Bennett’s appearance was great.
    • The entire book builds upon the problem that is Wickham.  He is misguided and makes bad choices, but he is not a violent man.  James uses our knowledge of this to help propel the story.  He cannot be the murderer no matter what the evidence says.  Darcy and Elizabeth know this, but because James has kept all of the characters based on their origins, we the reader know this too.  The story would not work as its own book without this.
    • The Colonel is jolly in P&P but in another great James twist, she adds new information to make him more serious.  His older brother has died and he is now the head of a prominent family; he must act differently now.
    • This book helped me to better appreciate what a huge deal it was for Darcy to marry beneath himself and choose his love of Elizabeth.  I always thought he was overreacting, but James’ historically accurate peek back into their lives 6 years later shed new light on the seriousness of his decision.  It made me appreciate P&P more.
  • Question: What is Fan Fiction?
    • Some of the members had no heard of the term before, so I defined it for them as when someone takes either the story or characters [or both] from a book or movie or tv show, etc... and creates their own story based on it.
    • Comments follow:
    • I don’t think it is always fair to the author of the original.
    • If anyone can write what happens to these characters after the original, why is that author more correct than another fan fiction writer? This was a good question, but I reminded them that this question is not too dissimilar to when we are hotly discussing the actions of a character in a fiction book and I have to stop the conversation and remind everyone that these “people” aren’t real, they are merely characters in the book.
    • I usually stay away from Austen based fan fiction because I love her, but I trusted James as a writer so I was willing to give it a go.
    • And I usually stay away from fan fiction where Elizabeth and Darcy don’t work out as a couple.  I knew this was one where they were happily married though.
    • Becky speaking: The best fan fiction is good on its own without knowing the source material.  It is a good read regardless of whether or not you know the source material.  But good fan fiction will also be a treat for the fans too.
  • Discussion Point: A lot of this books based on a social etiquette that is obsolete now.  How did you feel about this?
    • I makes me sad that manners are used less these days, but at the same time this novel made me appreciate how life is less superficial now.  We do not do what manners dictate, rather we do what we feel is right.
    • It was interesting to see how their life got too messy for the rules of the time here in the novel.  I almost laughed when Darcy, relieved that Wickham got pardoned, still was not sure if he should shake his hand.  It was sad and funny at the same time.
    • It is crazy to live in a time when your sister behaves badly 2 families’s lives could be blemished.
    • But this book also shows that times are changing and a softening of the harsh world of manner is coming, much as Austen was trying to show in her original.
    • This entire novel is based upon a central disruption that is based on manners. Most of the book is spent negotiating the manners and etiquette of figuring out the murder. They have time to digest and deal with everything, but today, things come too fast to contemplate the etiquette involved in our actions.  We are forced to react and act too quickly.
    • Also, in rural life, time moves more slowly.
  • Question: What did you think about the justice system as described in Death Comes to Pemberley?
    • Early 1800’s justice system was harsh.  No appeals, no defense closing statement, no scientific evidence.  Someone mentions being able to figure out blood types one day and is dismissed as crazy.
    • I don’t think I judge would accept a 10 minute deliberation to a guilty verdict in a murder case today.
    • I liked the trial scenes the best.  That was the most PD James part of the book. 
    • The three biggest landowners in the are the “law” and jury are the commoners.
    • While this seems unfair, we talked about how England still has The House of Lords made up of land owners.
    • Darcy doesn’t trust the jury, but it is not only a class thing.  The jury were less educated people.
    • The jails were also interesting.  Your family had to pay the jailers if you wanted to have enough food and comfort.
  • Question: After completing the entire novel do you thinkMrs Younge killed herself or tripped?
    • 6: killed self; tripped because distraught: 4
  • Darcy’s role in society was discussed a bit
    • He is the law and the welfare.
    • His whole mindset is one of responsibility for the people who live on his land and work for him.
    • Politicians today fell less responsible for us as people.
    • Darcy’s role and how seriously he takes it makes the conclusion more powerful.  In fact, all of the manners of the time make the entire book more powerful.
  • Question: Is this a good mystery without all of the P&P fun?
    • yes: 7, no: 4.
    • No because it was too much Austen and not enough James.
    • There were too many side stories to fill out the conclusion.
    • I did like how all of the details James puts in there come into play in the end.  It was great that even the dog’s grave was key.  The story of the great-grandfather’s dog seemed silly in the book, but it was very vital to the explanation of the murder.
    • I thought the ending was too neat.
    • I thought it was cool how the intricate manners of the era made the conflict more compelling.  For example, understanding why Louisa’s brother-in-law will not take the baby as his own makes mush more sense when you understand that the first born son holds so much power.
  • Words to describe this book:
    • Pride and Prejudice (all agreed this would be placed before murder)
    • trenchant
    • nobles oblige
    • disruption
    • social order
    • manners
    • fan fictions
    • tedious
    • homage
    • enlightening
    • relationships
    • family
    • end of an era.
Readalikes: There is so much Jane Austen fan fiction out there that I am not sure where to begin on suggesting readalikes.  I found this list on Goodreads where fans have contributed their favorites. I think it is ranked by number of votes.  Death Comes to Pemberley  was in the high 40s when I last checked.

Of course for a view-alike, fans of Downton Abbey will find much to enjoy in this book.

Also, early in January I finished Longbourn by Jo Baker for which I will have a review up soon.  I read these 2 books back to back on purpose.

In terms of less obvious readalikes...

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