Jane Austen in Scarsdale // by Paula Marantz Cohen

//published 2006//

If this book hadn’t been one I was reading for the traveling book club, I would never have finished it.  It combined so many things that I loathe.  It was pretentious and unbelievable with characters I despised.  There wasn’t really much of a story, and all the characters were bitter and cynical.  And to top it off – I was completely bored through every page.  This was definitely a book where it felt like the author was constantly condescending to you to remind you of how clever she was.

So this is a loose (VERY LOOSE) retelling of Persuasion.  Anne is a guidance counselor at a high school in New York, still single because she let the One True Love of her life get away years ago – Ben was poor and from a poor family, and Anne’s grandma (the one person in life she truly trusts, which honestly never made sense to me because her grandma was a snobby, selfish jerk) convinced Anne that she should break up with him.  Since then, Ben has gone on to become a famous author of travel books and has seen the world, while Anne has stayed in her hometown watching her father and sister rack up debts while she herself works a job full of petty difficulties.

Because Anne is a guidance counselor, an inordinate amount of time in this book is spent talking about the lengths various parents are willing to go to try and get their kids into good colleges.  It was… genuinely unbelievable.  I just couldn’t accept that people were willing to lie, cheat, bribe, etc. just so their kid could get into a school.  Every single parent in this book came across as mentally unstable, constantly frothing at the mouth in rage, screaming at random people, storming into Anne’s office, just literally and completely irrational in every way.  And Anne is all like, “Oh, you know, so stressful getting kids into college!” – as though this behavior is normal and expected…!!!!!!

Everything about this book was depressing.  Anne herself was a depressing, passive character.  Her father and sister were horrific – in Persuasion they are self-centered characters, yes, but in this version they bordered on psychopaths with their completely willingness to destroy anyone and anything that got in the way of them enjoying life.  Their entire involvement in the story also made no sense.  In Persuasion, Anne’s financial stability is inextricably tied up with her father’s because of the way things worked at that time.  But here, Anne has her own job, her own apartment, and is financially independent – yet for some reason is still very stressed about her father’s debt, and is the one taking on selling the house, despite the fact that it’s mentioned multiple times that he’s the one who is going to get the money from it.  So why does Anne care?????  It makes literally no sense, and honestly drove me a little crazy, especially because it’s not like there is any kind of family bond between them – we’re told repeatedly that Anne’s father has never liked her, and neither does her sister, so while I could have understood Anne not wanting them to end up homeless on the streets, her obsession with making sure that their debts were paid just never rang true.

This book had virtually no plot.  Oh, Ben is back in town and his nephew is going to be a student at Anne’s high school… okay?  The only interaction we get between Anne and Ben is found through flashbacks.  They have maybe 3-5 conversations in real time during this book.  The rest is about how happy they were ten years ago, which didn’t really convince me that their life would be great now.  Instead, the vast majority of the pages in this book are taken up with absolutely idiotic stories about the students in Anne’s school.  A crazy guy comes to talk; he runs a business that basically makes your kid “look good” on college resumes.  An entire chapter of this guy nattering on as though I could possibly find what he has to say even remotely interesting.  It was stuff like that over and over and over again.  Constant barrages of random parents coming and and ranting at Anne and Anne calming them down and convincing them that they should do such-and-such yadda yadda yadda  I thought it was never going to end.

Throughout the entire thing, everyone is SO cynical.  I’ve already mailed this book to the next unlucky person on the list and didn’t think to write down any of the quotes, but basically my impression was that Cohen had some kind of horrible college admission experience in her past and this entire book was her purging it from her system.  Or something.

And to top all of that off, there was a constant snide, belittling attitude towards anyone who doesn’t want to go to college, like that’s literally the worst possible thing that could happen to you.  Even students who were interested in going to “regular” colleges were treated like secondhand garbage.  Ugh.  Guys, it was SO HORRIBLE.  Honestly, the worst part was this horrible bitterness over the entire book.  I think I could have handled it better if it had actually been funny, but instead all the “funny” bits just sounded bitter.

All in all, this was the worst book I’ve read in a long time.  I will say that reading it for traveling book club at least meant that I could succumb to my desire to write scathing comments in the margins, so that helped.  1* and please don’t read this if you can possibly avoid it.