Mary Bennet, as everyone knows, is the plain middle sister: not beautiful like Jane, witty like Lizzy or even high-spirited like her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. But though she may be awkward, Mary is far from dull, and in Katherine J. Chen's debut novel, Mary B, she finally gets a chance to tell her own story. Beginning with the events of Pride and Prejudice, but going far beyond them both in time and scope, Chen imagines a woman ill-suited for the family and the world into which she was born. Mary struggles to make her own way in life without giving in to either convention or despair.
Chen begins her narrative with a telling incident from Mary's childhood. During a tussle with her younger sisters in the woods, she sustains a cut on her face from a rock. But her mother's distress and the doctor's attention are all for Jane, who was the intended target but suffered only a muddy dress. This pattern continues throughout the first part of the book, as Mary is undervalued or overlooked in favor of Lizzy, Jane or even Lydia.
Understandably, she lapses into self-pity at times, and this, along with the well-worn incidents comprising Lizzy's and Jane's love stories, makes the narrative drag a bit. But the action picks up after Lizzy and Darcy are married, and Mary goes to stay with them at Pemberley. There, she discovers a surprising friendship with Darcy, an unexpected connection with his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, and a latent passion for writing. The latter provides not only amusement and intellectual stimulation, but may change the course of her life. Gradually, Mary Bennet the minor character becomes Mary B the authoress, making bold choices for her fictional creations and herself.
Though timid and resigned at first, Mary's narrative voice grows acerbic, even caustic: she does not suffer fools and spares her family members no indignity. Readers of Pride and Prejudice already know of Mrs. Bennet's flightiness and Lydia's lack of self-control, but Mr. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas and Lizzy--especially Lizzy--do not come off well in this retelling. Only Jane, kind to the last, retains her sweetness and beauty.
Austen purists may be scandalized at Chen's reimagining of these familiar characters and her handling of the Darcys' relationship, but the book's plot twists are thought-provoking. Mary has long stopped believing in happy endings, but through sheer force of will and a series of unorthodox choices, she creates a surprising future for herself that might even include a bit of joy. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Shelf Talker: Mary Bennet, the awkward middle sister, finally gets to tell her own story in an acerbic, surprising debut novel.