A Book Review by her sister, Deborah Sundermann
Spoiler Warning: This Review Keeps No Secrets
One of my favorite bars in college served their version of a drink called “Strip and Go Naked.” It was part peach liqueur, part whiskey, part vodka, with a splash of beer on top. And I was rather fond of it. It was a little odd, but that’s what I liked about it. I feel the same way about Lily Berry, the protagonist in Cindy Jones’ debut novel, My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park. Lily is part Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, part Cinderella, part energizer bunny, with a splash of Cher. She’s a little odd, but that’s what I like about her.
We join her as her world, which has been held together rather tenuously by a small string, is unraveling. Her reality becomes fiction as her most recent boyfriend expresses his complete dissatisfaction with the relationship she thought was perfectly normal. It is with some irony that we learn that her heart’s desire has always been to escape reality and live in a novel. Her dependence on fiction as well as her dangerously low self-esteem are expertly combined in her remark, “If only Austen were still alive and writing, I wouldn’t have to stare at the walls of my bedroom, studying the Braille-like texture under the paint, as if the clues to my failure hid there.”
She loses her job by misrouting payroll deposits because she was more interested in reading her stack of Jane Austen novels over lunch—a time period that is significantly warped in the land of fiction. Lily observes,
As my boss explained termination benefits, it occurred to me that books should come with a warning from the surgeon general: Literature can be dangerous to your mental health and should be indulged in moderation. Read in excess, fiction may blur the line between fantasy and reality, causing dysfunction in personal and professional relationships. Readers should refrain while operating heavy machinery or driving automobiles. Or working in offices.
Through a fellow reader who may be equally delusional, she gets an opportunity to go to England and participate in a literary festival where Jane Austen books are reenacted for tourists—this summer being Mansfield Park. Impulsively, she liquidates life as she knew it—a complete failure in her eyes—and prepares to embark on a new adventure.
As Lily prepares to start fresh, one observation struck me as a sermon in eight words. “If I hadn’t failed, I’d still be failing.” This was my first clue that this story is not just a fun summer beach read. Important lessons about failure and letting go, determination, transformation, and rising from the ashes will be woven into a rich tapestry of classic yearnings and modern characters where nothing is obvious and little can be predicted. That is not just a story. That is literature. But Lily’s quirky character does not allow the book to take itself too seriously.
Lily realizes, perhaps too late, that she is utterly unprepared for the potential consequences of her rash choice to sell everything and go to England. Standing in the airport, she envisions, “With one foot in Dallas, the other on a departing plane, I would do the big-time splits or splash into the Atlantic. And be eaten by sharks.” It’s the shark part that makes me laugh. If you don’t get it, you need to lighten up or you might miss the book’s subtle humor throughout.
Jones’ writing glistens with saturated details that I especially enjoy when Lily is on the move. “Ducking into a ladies’ room, I took my place at the end of the line, advancing to the rhythm of flushing toilets and banging Band-Aid-colored doors.” Who among us has not had this ubiquitous experience, brought alive on the page in one beautifully crafted sentence? Another series of amazingly vivid images comes through in this: “I ran, but a family of five blocked my path: a blond Texas Hair woman holding a map, followed by a man and three rambunctious children, progressing in a tangle of limbs and barks like naughty puppies.”
When she arrives at Literature Live, she learns that she doesn’t exactly have a part in this new fictional reality. Thus the stage is set for conflict as we cheer Lily on through her adventures with a cast of characters that truly breathe. I have to say that my favorites are Omar and Bets. With his even nature and fondness for Lily, he brings a welcome warmth to every scene he inhabits. As long as he is there, I know that everything will ultimately be okay. And I still laugh out loud when Magda enters the room, they both flinch, and the diminutive Omar, who was leaning back his chair “fell off his toes.” Bets provides an unexpected contrast to Lily. While she has assumed a dark Gothic aura, Bets just sparkles in the story, adding spice to the entire experience. I challenge any reader to compare and contrast Lily and Bets and not find a common thread.
This book should be read at least twice so that you don’t miss Jones’ exquisite details, such as “On the opposite wall, floor to ceiling lace curtains dressed the windows like spinsters left over from the Depression.” Or “He paused after each phrase to allow his words to float down and settle on us like snowflakes.”
My heart beat with Lily as she leaned forward to soak up every detail about Literature Live like the geekiest, most obsessed Jane Austen fan. And while Lily is very unlike myself with respect to her relationships with men, I could still identify with her desire to please the faculty of Literature Live, her awkward moments, and her difficult recoveries.
I have read other reviewers who express one form or another of disapproval of The Scene with Sixby. It caught me by surprise on my first reading. But upon second reading, I saw the foreshadowing that led up to it. That is not to say that it is not disturbing. I think it is supposed to be disturbing. It is part of the “rock bottom” that Lily must hit before rising up. As Lily initiates it, she observes, “Plunging into disaster felt so much better than lame suffering.” Personally, I have a hard time with that world-view. I’m a lame sufferer to be sure. So this scene has become a twist in the story that I want to discuss with friends over a good glass of wine—to ferret out this protagonist’s choices and any number of issues dealing with power, self-image, promiscuity, desperation—the richness of this intentionally wretched scene screams for analysis. That is the challenge and reward of reading good books.
When the book nears its end, Lily is in Randolph’s room musing to herself, “Do you crave love or pain and are they the same thing to you?” The theme has returned to reveal the same question posed by The Scene with Sixby, but it is filtered through a stronger, more self-aware and less self-destructive individual. It is dense, like a consummate red wine reduction for your filet mignon. It conveys the heartbreak of every relationship in Lily’s life in one comprehensive, yet concise question.
What I was least willing to accept in this book, on first reading, was the allure of Willis. I really had no patience for his deception-by-silence and I was angry that Lily seemed so forgiving of it—as if she deserved no better. But, again, this made me want to lift out that relationship from the pages and marinate with it in a good Zinfandel. I wanted to understand it, through the eyes of my friends. It was this that compelled me to re-read the entire book. Paying more attention to their interactions and the place in his life where Lily made her entrance, I have to admit that his character was a difficult finesse that, once again, Jones pulled off in quiet understatement. I get it now. And I have that much more respect for Lily as she navigated her parting of ways with him.
I am drawn to books in order to enjoy interesting characters and examine difficult relationships. My Jane Austen Summer is steeped in both. Lily Berry may appear at first blush to be rather pathetic. But she has a belief in herself that even she cannot defeat. She has a determination that is inspiring. And her character survives an insanely wild adventure to emerge windblown and exhausted, but happier for it.
The worst thing about this book is that its fanciful plot and contemporary setting might lull readers into thinking it is just a summer beach read. It’s so much more.
Deborah Sundermann lives with her family in Corpus Christi, Texas where she practices law and meets occasionally with her wine tasting club.