I just finished Katherine Reay’s latest engaging novel, and before I add my review, I thought I’d better post my thoughts on her first book, which was published originally in Woman Alive.
When I finished this novel, I sighed in satisfaction and thought about turning back to the beginning, reading in the light of the plot twist at the end. Before doing so, I posted in our Woman Alive Facebook group about my delight with this book, but what happened next left me feeling ambivalent. In fact, I felt similar to that first time I visited New York City, when I bought a watch from a man outside the Statue of Liberty who had watches hanging all along the inside of his coat. (Of course it only worked for a day; how gullible was I as a naive young woman from the Midwest!) For one of the regular Facebook members, Angie Pollard, said:
I love Dear Mr Knightley – though didn’t think I would when I started reading it… I presume you’ve read the classic Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, which it parallels and is one of my ‘go-to’ books. Time for a re-read of both!
No, I hadn’t heard of Daddy Long Legs; this was news to me. From being so pleased with the fresh and original plot twist in Dear Mr. Knightley, now I felt like I had bought a knock-off Gucci watch that would die an early death. (And I’m sorry if you’ve read Daddy Long Legs so now you know the plot of Dear Mr. Knightley.) I’ve been mulling over my reaction, wondering why a new novel based on an older version troubles me. Maybe it has something to do with how the protagonist, Sam, hid behind characters from literature (mainly those of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte), spouting off their words when she felt trapped or scared. She – who as a child had experienced an abusive, broken family and grew up in the foster-care system – hadn’t found her voice and so employed the voices of others. Was the author of this novel doing the same by lifting the plot from a classic?
I remain undecided. That issue aside, Dear Mr. Knightley delighted me. I loved Sam’s references to Lizzie Bennet and others, and I was moved by her journey to love as she learned to trust and shed her fears of exposure and rejection. She also finds her calling and her voice as a journalist, moving from one whose features were wooden and unpublishable to a passionate teller of hidden stories of children at risk. The novel even has a touch of romance.
What do you think? Knock-off or inspired update?
A Tale of Two Sisters
More Austen-inspired fiction from Katherine Reay. I don’t know if the bones of this novel emerged from another classic, such as with Dear Mr Knightley; I somehow hope not. But either way, I was captivated by this story of two sisters. Their mother died of cancer a decade or so previously, splitting the sisters and their father, with Lizzy moving to New York City and Jane staying on the West Coast. Lizzy poured herself into her chef career while Jane – ten years older – took the marriage/family/work balancing act route. But when Jane is diagnosed with breast cancer, Elizabeth loses her cooking genius. She realizes she needs to go back to Seattle and Portland and reconnect with her sister – and all that she ran from.
Strong, evocative writing; I especially enjoyed delving into the sisters’ relationship – how can two different people with so much history become friends? How can they come to understand the other enough to forgive – and in the process, find out more of who they are and who they have been created to be? The novel addresses bigger questions of what are we living for; what fuels our passion; how can we love and live with those closest to us without scratching their eyes out on the one hand or distancing ourselves emotionally on the other.
I figured out how the novel would end, but that didn’t put me off enjoying it. One to read with a cuppa.
Dear Mr. Knightley, Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, ISBN 978-1401689681) and Lizzy & Jane: A Novel, Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, 978-1401689735)