Mary B by Katherine J Chen

When I found this on the library’s “new books” shelves, I was intrigued. Why would anyone write a novel with Mary Bennet as the main character? In Pride and Prejudice, she’s the middle daughter, very preachy, very serious, very down in the mouth. She seems to be surrounded by a perpetual cloud of glum – that is, if her presence can even recalled at all, except for that moment at the party when she’s told to shut up and let someone else have a turn. Mary is to be laughed at, in Austen’s book, but in Chen’s book, she holds her own.

Mary B begins in childhood, with Mary realising that she’s not treated the same as her other sisters. She is hurt in the face but the adults’ concern is for Jane.

“Though still a child, I already saw, unfolding before me, a life lived ingratiatingly in the shadwos, of sitting like an old gargoyle at dinner tables while, some few feet away, the living laughed and exchanged stories. I would have no stories to tell. No estates to run. No children to speak of. I would not be blessed with the holy rites of matrimony and would thus be compelled to live my years beholden to the loveliness of one or two older sisters, who would, by their charity, ensure that I always had food to eat and a roof over my head.”

The action then moves into the very same period with the original characters and storyline, except seen from Mary’s perspective. And this I enjoyed very much. It was interesting to see things from the sidelines, as a young woman with no suitors, assigned the “role of living scenery”, like Charlotte and Maria Lucas are too.

“These women will normally appear extraordinarily pleased with themselves and their company, for it is in their best interest that they look as happy in talking with members of their own sex as the women who are engaged in dancing, or, worse, the women who are not engaged in dancing but are surrounded by more men than should justly be allotted to them, which, of course, is any number more than one.”

I found it interesting that Chen developed Mr Collins’ character quite a bit, for he is quite a character and I’d always thought that he and Mary would have gotten along – or at least had more similarities than the other characters.

So I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the book, written in the same setting and period as the original book. But where Chen gets more daring is in the second half of the book, where she ventures to imagine a future for the Bennets.

And this is perhaps where things take a turn for the not so good. In this imagined future, things are not so rosy for all her sisters. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so I won’t go any further but I must say that I do not like Chen’s vision of Elizabeth’s future. She writes Lizzy as a very whiny character, as if Chen herself has been affronted by Lizzy in some way.

Perhaps if Chen had stayed with the Pride and Prejudice story and not ventured too far, she might have been more successful. It’s never easy retelling a beloved story and this is an especially beloved story with its many movie and TV adaptations. I could feel her sentiments about Mary, I could tell she was so wanting Mary to have her chance to shine, to have her happy ending, but it seemed too much like it was at the expense of the other characters.

This is my second read of 2019 and I’m using this book for the Popsugar challenge – Retelling of a Classic

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8 Comments

  1. It’s always dangerous territory when an author decides to start imagining the future lives of favourite characters, especially ones as beloved as these. I did have the pleasure of encountering another author’s take on Mary Bennet last month, going to attend the play “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon. It puts Mary (a couple of years after her sisters’ marriages) front and center but leaves everyone with the happy endings Austen gave them. I adored it and if you ever have a chance to see or just read it, I would highly, highly recommend it.

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  2. Oh what a shame that the author sacrifices beloved characters in order to prop up Mary. I really feel like there was a way to write this book that gave us new insights into Mary’s character AND show Lizzie’s failings as a sister or whatever, without creating a version of Lizzie that feels inconsistent to the original. I always have high hopes for Pride and Prejudice-associated books, but they so rarely live up to my desires. :p

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  3. I enjoyed the idea of poor Mary coming into her own. I was unpleasantly surprised by the dreadful & unlikely circumstances the author put some of the characters in – completely upending what Jane Austen had written. I don’t believe Mary, Lizzy or Charlotte would’ve behaved in the way the author portrayed them. I felt some story lines were written for their shock value. Gee – these are beloved characters from a Jane Austen novel, not a reality show.

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