I picked up the audiobook of Katherine Reay’s‘The Austen Escape’ because I was looking for something fun and familiar. It’s a feel-good contemporary fiction book about a Mary Davis, a young American woman, leaving her home in Austin Texas to accompany her childhood best friend, Isabel, on a two week, Jane Austen-themed, trip to a manor house in Bath. I
sabel is an Austin scholar doing her PhD on the appeal of Austen as an escape from the twenty-first century. Mary is an engineer in a high tech R&D company that she’s been in since it was a garage start-up but is now struggling to cope with a boss who wants to introduce standardisation. The two are supposed to spend a two-week vacation at a Georgian manor house, dressed in costume and are supposed to take on the persona of one of Austin’s characters. What neither of them expects is that Isabel will fall into a fugue and truly believe she is the character that she’s adopted.
I live in Bath and have spent a lot of time working with R&D engineers so I expected to have a good context for this story. It turned out that that wasn’t always a good thing. I was distracted by small details that didn’t make sense at the start of the story – you don’t go from Heathrow to Bath via Oxford – you won’t encounter cobbled streets in the roads above Bath – you can’t walk from The Royal Crescent to Assembly Rooms via The Circus and pass the Marlborough Arms along the way – English limo drivers are unlikely to have missing teeth. None of these things is important but they pushed me out of the story at first.
By comparison, the description of how R&D teams work, especially the cross-fertilisation of ideas between engineers and physicists, and the challenges in scaling up from start-up to major player while keeping an innovation culture were described very well.
The heart of the book doesn’t lie with Bath or Austen or Engineering. It’s really about two of Mary’s relationships: the relationship with Isabel which Mary has outgrown but not outlived and her relationship with a consultant advising on the growth of Mary’s firm.
The relationship with the consultant is a well-done romance trope with all the frustrations and miscommunications you might expect. I particularly liked how this romance trope avoided clichés and was built around Mary’s personality, accepting her introversion, her avoidance of conflict, her obsession with engineering design and her uncertainty about her own future and turning them into reasons why the romance should work.
Mary’s relationship with Isabel was more complicated and more substantive. I won’t give the details here because discovering them is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. I found the relationship to be much more complicated than it at first appeared and I liked that both Mary and Isabel went through some difficult but plausible changes.
The Austin context of the novel is more than decorative. Austin’s observations and characters help Mary to look at herself and Isabel differently. The dressing up and role play really did provide a form of escape from their pasts that allowed them to make some choices about their futures.
Overall, I had fun with this book. It was the gentle, positive read that I’d been hoping for.
The audiobook format worked well. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an extract from the book.