By Joan Austen-Leigh.
A Room of One's Own Press, 2001.
Reviewed by Devoney Looser.
Most of us know Joan Austen-Leigh as one of the co-founders of JASNA, as the founding editor of our journal, Persuasions, and as the author of works that reflect on or continue her great great-great-aunt's writing. Many are aware that she has penned award-winning plays (under the name of Joan Mason Hurley) and that her first novel, Stephanie, was a Canadian best seller. Those who have had the good fortune to know Joan personally delight in her warmth, wit, and generosity. It will come as no surprise that her latest novel (her fifth), Invitation to the Party, exudes these qualities in an accomplished, entertaining work, sure to be a hit with JASNA members and beyond.
There are certainly deliberate echoes of Austen in this novel, despite its contemporary setting in Kalalalka, a fictional small town tourist destination in British Columbia. There are direct references to Austen's birthday (shared with Noel Coward and Beethoven) and to Persuasion's the Crofts. There were several scenes in which I couldn't help but think of Austen as an inspirational backdrop for the novel's happenings. I was put in mind of Pride and Prejudice's Wickham and the town's collective response to him; Persuasion's Captain Benwick and his grief over losing his intended; Sense and Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood's emotional outburst; and Emma's Box Hill scene and its humiliation of Miss Bates.
But the novel stands completely on its own, allusive and original, with light and thoughtful references to Betjeman. Carroll, Chekhov, Chesterfield, Milton. Shaw, Wordsworth, and, of course, Shakespeare. If that list seems daunting, the experience of reading the novel is not. The literary and musical references give us a window into the heads of those who populate the novel and reveal those who actually read Shakespeare and those who simply pretend to. There are, to be sure, snobs in Kalalalka, but the town's most cultured and learned characters are placed in situations with inhabitants who are tacky and dumb as pencils, and these groups mix amiably.
Invitation to the Party is a kind of comic Mrs. Dalloway, narrated in the third person through the perspectives of several characters. The title of the novel refers to the town's main event, an annual party in honor of Shakespeare's birthday on April 23rd, hosted by the grand dame heiress who lives on the hill, Eliza Beaumont. To be invited to the Shakespeare party is the goal of Kalalalka's social climbers. For this reason, Mrs. Beaumont maintains a gatekeeper to the guest list in her cousin and right-hand woman, the formidable Violet Stokes.
The novel opens some weeks before the party and introduces us to the down on her luck Myfanwy O'Hara, a former schoolteacher and fledgling innkeeper struggling to keep her lodge afloat and her husband sober. In the first chapter, she narrowly misses being run down by Mrs. Beaumont, speeding through sleepy downtown Kalalalka in her Jaguar. We soon learn that Myfanwy is very isolated, despite the company of her nine-year-old son. Myfanwy is flanked by her only friend, a quirky and impoverished poet, Lydia Lee Larsen, who ekes out a living from her work at a superbly described trendy specialty store named "Eklectica."
My favorite character is a--one is tempted to say "the"--Shakespearean actor. Simon Partridge, whose acerbic wIt. self-centeredness, and foul mouth are largely kept in check by his long-suffering and devoted lover. English pianist Nicholas Forrest. Austen-Leigh's talents as a dramatist are evident throughout the novel in vivid scenes and in dialogue that is humorous, believable, and touching, but she is at the height of her powers in the conversations involving Simon and Nicky.
The character you will love to hate is journalist and newcomer Sparkle Green, whose assumed name replaced the decidedly less glamorous one she was born with. "Sparkle" suits her much better. One of my favorite bits in the novel involves the story of Sparkle and her new housekeeper, who is unwittingly involved in a caper described as "hide the slipper."
But these short descriptions do not give a sense of the rich fabric of the whole. By the end of the novel, a dozen or so characters have become embroiled in each other's lives, in new loves and losses, and in a myriad of adventures. all building to the climax of the long-awaited party. Austen-Leigh has crafted a fine novel with wonderful characters, who are by turns pitiable, put upon, and flawed, but uniformly splendid. Even the snobs and the fools are ultimately loveable in this fun, smart, and spirited work of fiction. I recommend it as another invaluable contribution given to all of us by Joan. Invitation to the Party will appeal to those who are being introduced to her for the first time, as well as to the rest of us, who remain her grateful and longstanding admirers and friends. Bravo Joan. You have given us so much, and this most recent production is truly a literary gift.
Devoney Looser is assistant professor of English at Louisiana State University and a member of the JASNA Board of Directors. She is editor of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism and author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820.
JASNA News v.17, no. 2, Summer 2001, p. 30
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