As I discussed in my review of Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, The Austen Project is a publishing concept that pairs up bestselling contemporary authors with the works of Jane Austen, with the goal of creating six reimagined versions of the classic novels. So far, three have been published, with the next projected for release in 2016.
This new version of Sense and Sensibility is written by bestselling author Joanna Trollope, who imagines the Dashwood family in almost familiar terms — finding themselves displaced from their lovely home by their half-brother and his money-hungry wife, having to rely on the kindness of distant relatives to start fresh, and figuring out the ups and downs of love, infatuation, and everything in between.
But this Sense & Sensibility is set in the 21st century, and of course, there are changes from the original. Elinor, practical as ever, is an architecture student. Marianne, frail and subject to the whims of passionate feeling, is severely asthmatic and must always be looked after. The often overlooked youngest, Margaret (or here, Mags), petulant and whiny, always plugged into her headphones, appreciates any cute boyfriend of her sisters’ — so long as he drives an awesome car.
The cast of characters is much the same as in the Austen version, with Marianne’s love interest Willoughby portrayed here as gorgeous but shiftless Wills, all too ready to throw Marianne over for the sake of romancing a millionaire’s daughter. We also have Bill Brandon, an utterly good guy running a non-profit home for mentally challenged individuals at his Delaford estate, and hapless Edward Ferrars, whose controlling mother has bullied him into utter dependence. The awful characters — especially Fanny Dashwood and the Steele sisters — are every bit as awful here. After all, selfishness, emotional manipulation, and obsessions with money are timeless!
The essential storyline follows the familiar path, but with elements changed to make more sense in the modern setting. There are hospital visits and interior decorators, school carpools and even a job for Elinor. But the sisters’ defining characteristics are what we know from Austen: Elinor is steady and logical, steering the family through hard times through her practical management when everyone else in her family is busy feeling all the feels — and Marianne, throwing herself headlong into love with no regard for anything but listening to her heart and relying 100% on her emotions to lead the way.
Start to finish, I was pretty charmed by this version of Sense & Sensibility. It’s no replacement for the classic Austen novel, and I’m not convinced that it would work as a stand-alone. But as a companion piece to the classic, it’s quite endearing. While the rush to marriage may feel a bit forced at times in a modern setting, as framed in the context of status-hungry social climbers and defiantly old school, old money families, it makes a sad sort of sense. Throw in social media, and you have Marianne devastated not just by a broken heart, but by public humiliation via YouTube.
The writing is light in tone, with just enough winking acknowledgement that this is a retelling:
“Hasn’t she got a boyfriend yet? She’s old enough.”
“She’s fourteen. Honestly, Abi, it’s all you ever think about. You’re like those nineteenth-century novels where marriage is the only career option for a middle class girl.”
Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility is a fun read that’s sure to amuse anyone who loves the Jane Austen classic and is open to seeing the story retold with a modernized twist. It doesn’t require a whole lot of concentration, but it should at least make you smile!
Title: Sense & Sensibility
Author: Joanne Trollope
Publication date: January 1, 2013
Length: 362 pages