by Val McDermid
Grove Press, 368 pp., $26
“Northanger Abbey” was the first Jane Austen novel to be submitted and purchased for publication, and the last to go into print (in 1818, soon after Austen’s death).
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It is a slighter, lighter work than such later triumphs as “Pride and Prejudice.” But Austen’s deft wit and keen observation of social manners, foibles and mating rituals lift her portrait of a naive young woman so besotted by fantasy literature, she imagines demons everywhere — while missing her own and others’ all-too-human failings.
As part of The Austen Project, a series of Austen classics updated by prominent British writers, Scottish mystery novelist Val McDermid brings “Northanger Abbey” into the digital age.
Historically it’s not a bad fit, given the modern craze for supernatural fiction (“Twilight,” etc.). McDermid also cleverly incorporates modern communication modes, working slangy tweets, texts and Facebook entries, into the narrative.
The result is a brisk, amiable (and chaste) read, but close enough to Austen’s original plot and characters to raise the question: Why bother? Other than the tweets, and atmospheric move from Bath to Edinburgh, what of real interest is fresh?
McDermid’s people-pleasing, 17-year old “Cat” Morland is a big consumer of fantasy lit. She takes her first trip on her own to the famed Edinburgh Arts Festival, where she finds new friends — including wealthy, hunky Henry Tilney.
Cat’s new relationships with Henry and his sister Ellie are nearly derailed by two “bad” siblings: gauche, grasping Bella and Johnny Thorpe. Apart from the flirtatious romantic intrigues, the other (modest) source of suspense here is whether Cat will discover dark secrets or vampires in Northanger Abbey, the Tilneys’ ancestral pile.
Recent vampire and zombie twists on “Pride and Prejudice” possess more action and imagination than this tame makeover.
The Austen Project has also issued Joanna Trollope’s version of “Sense and Sensibility.” Updates of “Pride and Prejudice” by Curtis Sittenfeld, and “Emma” by Alexander McCall Smith are in the offing.