Is it even possible, in the eyes of a Jane Austen fan, to think that Mr. Darcy is capable of breaking the heroine's heart? Obviously the answer is yes, but in that case, how could the story possibly end well? Rest assured that it does. Author Beth Pattillo has found a way to ruffle the feathers of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE fans and then restore their confidence in love --- and in gentlemen.
The story's heroine is Claire Prescott, a single woman attending her first Jane Austen seminar at Oxford. Claire is there to sit in for her pregnant sister, who needs the hours for her teacher's accreditation. She is a bit frazzled, having just been laid off from her office job. Facing an uncertain future without any higher education, she's not at all sure what she's going to do with her life. During the conference (with Austen's input), Claire gains the guidance she needs to help her figure it all out.
The seminar attendees are mostly women obsessed with Mr. Darcy. There are also a few men who fall into categories of literary experts and "the doubters." Claire is at first a doubter herself, being new to Austen's books. But she doesn't mind romantic cynicism because it's coming from a very appealing source. James Beaufort is in the publishing industry but isn't a big fan of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. He's intimidating and gorgeous, and there's just something about him that draws Claire in against her will. The two have unmistakable chemistry, which fills Claire with longing and guilt. Her long-term boyfriend, Neil, wouldn't at all appreciate her eyeing another man.
The facts are that Claire isn't so sure about Neil lately. He doesn't seem very dedicated and is constantly taking her for granted. They're not serious enough as a couple for her to completely write off other men, though they're just serious enough that Neil expects her not to be looking. Feeling guilty and insecure, Claire finds herself lying to James. The two get know one another and begin seeing each other over the heated weeks of the conference. Especially after reading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, it's unmistakable to Claire that James makes her feel as no man ever has. But she's also lying to him, and even through the overwhelming moments, she knows it will eventually catch up to her.
During her stay, Claire befriends Harriet, a nearby resident. Stopping for tea at Harriet's cottage, she discovers the old woman's treasure: the sole surviving copy of the first draft of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, a manuscript that tells a very different story from the one that was finally published. Reading this alternate draft of Austen's legendary story allows Claire to gain more perspective than she had from the original alone. This ultimately helps her develop an ideal about men, and she does end up finding "the real Mr. Darcy."
To be given the chance to become a bystander to a sizzling romance is reason enough to read Beth Pattillo's book. But the most compelling part of the novel is the alternate storyline for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. The new plotline proposed about Elizabeth Bennet is surprising, progressive and fresh. It lures you in until Claire's storyline becomes more of a background interest. And let me just say that it ends very differently for Elizabeth than readers will expect! This is enough to make me wonder what ideas Austen originally had when she was writing the first draft, and how those evolved with the events that surrounded her life. (Apparently it's true that she rewrote much of the classic to create the final, published work.) And the most impressive thing is that the alternate story is believable and not at all cynical.
Reading MR. DARCY BROKE MY HEART made me want to go back and reread PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Clearly, Pattillo is a true fan of Jane Austen, and I suspect that most readers of classic romance and all fanatical Austen fans will find this book worth reading.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on January 7, 2011