Simonsen's heroine is Maggie Joyce, an American stationed in London in 1947 with the Army Exchange Service. World War II ended just two years prior, and the British are still feeling the pinch of rations, grieving the death of loved ones killed in the battlefield or by the bombs, and doing their best to get by while standing in the midst of destruction.
Neither Rob nor I had ever heard of the Baedeker raids, so I asked Mrs. Ives if they were a part of the Blitz.
"No, the Blitz was in 1940-41," Mrs. Ives replied. "According to Lord Haw Haw, the British traitor used by the Nazis for their radio broadcasts, the Baedeker raids were in retaliation for the RAF bombing of German cities. Using Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain, cities that received three stars in the tourist guide because of their historical importance were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Before Canterbury was bombed in June 1942, Exeter, Bath, and York were also bombed." (page 89 in the ARC)Maggie travels with a friend to Derbyshire to visit Montclair, a historic house that once belonged to William Lacey and Elizabeth Garrison Lacey, a couple believed to have inspired Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Maggie, a huge fan of the classic novel, wants to know as much as she can about the home and the Laceys to determine whether they truly are Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Her search to learn more about the Laceys brings her to the doorstep of Jack and Beth Crowell, and an instant bond is formed. Jack and Beth grow to love Maggie and think of her as a daughter, and through frequent visits and correspondence, Maggie reads letters and diary entries and slowly uncovers the history of the Lacey and Garrison families. Readers take the journey alongside Maggie, and those who have read Pride and Prejudice will see similarities between Austen's beloved characters and Beth's ancestors.
But would Jane Austen have written a novel that often ridiculed people who could possibly be identified by their neighbors, for example, Mrs. Bennet, with her fragile nerves and poor judgment?Meanwhile, Maggie must contend with a longing to return to her hometown in Pennsylvania and her desire at the same time to stay away. She comes from a coal-mining town with few opportunities, and she's grown to love the life she's leading in England. Besides Jack and Beth, Maggie has feelings for both Rob, an American who served as a navigator on a B-17 bomber during the war and wears the scars to prove it, and Michael, Beth and Jack's son and a pilot in the RAF. Things get a little complicated for Maggie, especially when she learns how deeply the horrors of war have affected Rob.
"Do you know when Jane first wrote the novel?" he asked.
"When she was twenty, so that would be about 1795."
"But it wasn't published until 1813," Jack said, jumping in quickly. "By that time, the Laceys had been married for twenty years! If anyone was trying to figure out if these characters were real, they would have been looking at people in their twenties in 1813. Some of the characters in that book were already dead and buried by the time Pride and Prejudice was published." (page 16 in the ARC)
Searching for Pemberley grabbed me from the first page, and I was so lost in the story that I was reading 50-page chunks on the train and bus and almost missing my stop. Simonsen writes from the first person viewpoint of Maggie, but her use of storytelling is what makes the narrative shine. Whether the story being told is about the Laceys, the Crowell's love affair, or the hardships experienced during the Great War and World War II, it feels as though you are sitting by the fire listening to an old friend chat. Simonsen did a great job crafting the story of the Laceys -- making them different enough from the Darcys to keep the story fresh -- and seamlessly weaving in Jack and Beth's story. I actually was surprised how much the book dealt with the topic of war and its impact, which makes Searching for Pemberley so much more than a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice. Honestly, the Jane Austen aspect of the story is just one part of the puzzle.
While the nearly 500-page book has numerous scenes and characters that are unnecessary to the plot and could have been cut without being missed, even these scenes were enjoyable, and I never once found that the story dragged. In fact, for a book of its length, I read it fairly quick. I wasn't as captivated with Maggie and her romantic troubles (it was all rather predictable, but not in a bad way) as I was with the story of the Laceys and the Crowells. Still, I found the entire book interesting, and Simonsen did an admirable job moving between the Regency, Great War, and World War II settings. I never expected to discover a book that successfully merges two of my primary reading interests into one story, so you can bet this gem of a novel will hold a special place on my shelf.
Mary Lydon Simonsen will be visiting Diary of an Eccentric tomorrow to answer a few questions about Searching for Pemberley and her upcoming projects, among other things. I hope you'll come back to see what she has to say.
Searching for Pemberley counts toward the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations, as well as the Everything Austen Challenge at Stephanie's Written Word.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Searching for Pemberley from Sourcebooks for review purposes.