Sep 5 2011 3:00pm

Fresh Meat: Karen Doornebos’s Definitely Not Mr. Darcy (September 6, 2011)

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen DoornebosDefinitely Not Mr. Darcy
Karen Doornebos
Penguin Group, September 6, 2011, $15.00

Chloe Parker was born two centuries too late. A thirty-nine-year-old divorced mother, she runs her own antique letterpress business, is a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society, and gushes over everything Regency. But her business is failing, threatening her daughter’s future. What’s a lady to do?

Why, audition for a Jane Austen-inspired TV show set in England, of course.

What Chloe thinks is a documentary turns out to be a reality dating show set in 1812. Eight women are competing to snare Mr. Wrightman, the heir to a gorgeous estate, along with a $100,000 prize. So Chloe tosses her bonnet into the ring, hoping to transform from stressed-out Midwest mom to genteel American heiress and win the money. With no cell phones, indoor plumbing, or deodorant to be found, she must tighten her corset and flash some ankle to beat out women younger, more cutthroat, and less clumsy than herself. But the witty and dashing Mr. Wrightman proves to be a prize worth winning, even if it means the gloves are off...

As a huge fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as reality dating shows like The Bachelorette, I was fascinated by the premise of Karen Doornebos’s Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, and the book did not disappoint.

From the reality television show angle, readers get an exciting, behind-the-scenes peek at what it’s like for Chloe to be shadowed by cameras filming her every move, including some hilarious moments that she’d rather not have recorded for posterity. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say a vibrator and a pack of condoms make a cameo appearance—not in the way you’d expect, though. Chloe also has to handle her fellow back-stabbing contestants, like the land-hungry, man-eating Lady Grace, who refuses to play by the rules.

Since the reality show strives to be historically accurate, Chloe learns about making ink, sewing fireplace mantels, riding sidesaddle, and a variety of other so-called “feminine” activities that are part of the Jane Austen novels. She also experiences the nitty-gritty realities of Regency life that aren’t described in Pride and Prejudice, like a serious lack of personal hygiene. For example, Chloe washes her hair with a sticky concoction of rum, eggs, and rose water. She brushes her teeth with an ineffective paste that tastes like chalk dust. She unsuccessfully fights body odor with lemon juice. And when it’s time to take a bath, everyone subservient to the highest ranking person in the house has to use cold, dirty bathwater.

As fascinating as the historically accurate details were, I have to admit that they were a bit of a romance killer. When two people are falling in love, sensory details are important, and the entire time Chloe was interacting with her potential heroes—Henry and Sebastian—I worried about her greasy hair, bad breath and body odor problems. Not even her sheer muslin dress, impressive cleavage and crotchless underwear could make her seem sexy. I imagined a cloud of dirt and dust following her around like Pig-Pen from the Snoopy comics. Before every kissing scene, I worried that she would forget to chew mint leaves and end up disgusting the men with her breath.

I wanted Chloe to be as attractive as possible because her love interests were downright swoon-worthy. She is torn between Sebastian Wrightman, the heir, and Henry Wrightman, his penniless younger brother. Sebastian is tall, dark, and handsome, and always says the right thing, but Henry is the real star. He’s a spectacle-wearing doctor who rescues fainting women, whips up laudanum in his personal laboratory, tends to the wounds of errant lapdogs, and enjoys reliving the past as much as Chloe. In the beginning of the book, Lady Grace “accidentally” shoots at Chloe’s carriage with a rifle, and Chloe faints. Henry rescues her and takes her home, but when she wakes up, she can’t believe what happened:

She wasn’t the fainting type. But this was England, after all, and people fainted in England. She handed the handkerchief back to [Henry], but he didn’t take it. Her thumb grazed  the blue embroidered HW in the corner. “Well, I’ve never fainted before.”

“I suppose it follows that if one has never fainted before, one never will. When a lady doesn’t faint, as you clearly haven’t, I recommend a brief rest in her boudoir.”

Henry’s quiet sarcasm made me laugh every time he appeared on the page, and he wasn’t the only funny character. Chloe has a knack for getting herself into trouble, and her cringe-worthy misadventures held my attention. In the end, though, I wished the historical details were a little more genteel for the sake of the romance—or I wish Chloe could have at least found some ingenious way to freshen up, aside from taking an accidental dip in a frog hatchery.

As readers, how do you feel about such brutally honest historical details?

Brittany is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist and small business owner who hopes that heaven will be like a bookstore with an endless supply of free books, free coffee and super comfy chairs.

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Georgie Lee
1. Georgie Lee
Interesting question. The books sounds like a fun read but I can see your point about the body odor issue. In some books brutally honest facts work and sometimes they do get in the way. It always depends on the story.
Georgie Lee
2. AMG
About the bad breath-wouldn't the men have bad breath too? Their breath might be equally offensive, along with their body odor. I can (if necessary) go a day without a shower, but my husband really starts to stink.

So if everyone is stinking/greasy, I think everyone can just chill.
Brittany Melson
3. BrittanyMelson
@Georgia Lee--It is a very fun book to read, and I highly recommend it! @AMG--Good question about mutual body odor. Maybe that was part of the problem. I don't remember the narrator saying whether or not the men stunk. Maybe it would have helped if they did. Or maybe I would have found it even grosser:)
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