Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, retellings
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on March 31, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.
What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.
Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.
Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her. In The Other Bennet Sister, Mary is a fully rounded character—complex, conflicted, and often uncertain; but also vulnerable, supremely sympathetic, and ultimately the protagonist of an uncommonly satisfying debut novel.
The Other Bennet Sister is definitely NOT a book to be judged by its cover. I really hated that cover – and this is one of the rare occasions where the UK cover is just as bad. Both covers seem to picture Mary Bennet exactly as she was in Pride and Prejudice. She seems washed out in the US cover and judgmental in the UK cover.
But I loved the book.
The real Mary, or at least the version I want to be the real Mary, does begin her story as sermonizing and judgmental. But, and it’s a HUGE but, because this is Mary’s own story and not the story of her much more brightly shining sisters, we see that Mary’s behavior is the result of being shy and withdrawn. She’s retreated into herself because she’s the frequently overlooked and often denigrated middle sister, trapped between the gorgeously beautiful Jane and Lizzy and the shallow but pretty Kitty and Lydia.
She’s not really an ugly duckling in the midst of a flock of swans, but her mother sure as hell makes her feel like it at every turn. I didn’t like Mrs. Bennet in the original story – AT ALL – and I like her even less here. Actually, I loathe her even more than I dislike this book’s cover.
Mary isn’t a diamond of the first water, as her older sisters are. She doesn’t sparkle the way her younger sisters do. But she is as pretty as any other young woman of her time, and would have been fine in any family slightly more functional than the Bennets.
But this is not a parallel story to Pride and Prejudice. Instead, it’s more like an alternate sequel, as most of the events take place after the end of P&P. Not merely after those events, but also after the long-feared death of Mr. Bennet, leaving Mrs. Bennet and her remaining unmarried daughters, Mary and Kitty.
And that is where Mary’s story really begins, as she starts the process of taking control of her own life for her own self – in spite of her mother’s frequent interference and constant disparaging – and often melodramatic – pronouncements.
Once Mary is on her own the story takes flight, as she explores the limited varieties of life possible for a spinster and begins to craft her own beliefs about who she is and how she should live – whether she manages to marry or not.
That the end of her journey of self-discovery leads her to love and happiness is the icing on a delightful and thoroughly tasty little cake of a story.
Escape Rating A-: In the end, I enjoyed The Other Bennet Sister considerably more than I expected to at the beginning. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I’m not a fan or an aficionado. I found Mrs. Bennet in particular to be utterly appalling as a character, and Caroline Bingley and Catherine de Bourgh are not people I’d ever want to spend much time with. Certainly not enough time to ever attempt a reread of the book.
So one of the things I really liked about The Other Bennet Sister is that none of these petty villains are ever described as anything more than exactly what they are.
It does make for some fairly hard reading at the beginning of the story, as we pretty much suffer right along with Mary as she is first constantly berated by Mrs. Bennet, and then is forced to take on the role of charity case in the homes of both Elizabeth and then Jane as they subtly or not-so-subtly make her aware that she’s unwanted and unwelcome.
She has no place and she has no choice and that’s a difficult situation to be in.
But that’s when she takes things into her own hands and looks for other options, first with Lizzy’s friend Charlotte and her husband Mr. Collins – who was a figure of fun in the original, much like Mary herself.
It’s only when Mary takes herself off to her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, that she finally finds a place where she is welcome and can work out her own future, whatever it might be. But all along Mary is brave and forthright, even in situations where those around her do their level best to keep her as far down as possible.
It’s fun watching her grow and expand her horizons. It’s also heartening to see her look hard at the easy way out but reject it as unworthy, over and over. She does a great job of exploring her limited possibilities and making her best choices.
In the end, Mary is a fascinating character, a woman with agency but one whose thoughts, beliefs and choices reflect her time and not ours. The Other Bennet Sister is a lovely story that uses its original as a springboard to something better!