Monday, 8 January 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Caroline by Sue Barr

AMAZON UK £3.83 / £6.53
AMAZON US $4.99  / $8.50
AMAZON CA $6.31 / $14.28

Regency / Jane Austen retelling / Religeous
17th Century

I suspect many readers of this site will agree with me that a well written Austen spinoff is a delight. I’ve read a few, some excellent, some not so much. Caroline by Sue Barr is a light-hearted take on Caroline Bingley, that woman of Pride and Prejudice notoriety, and what happens to her leading up to and just following the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth.

The novel opens at some point during the period of Pride and Prejudice in which Bingley and Darcy return to Netherfield and, of course, Bingley ends up proposing to Jane Bennett and Darcy to Elizabeth. Readers become privy to the inner workings of Caroline Bingley’s mind and see her turmoil, not just over her own ruined plans to become mistress of Pemberley, but over what she views as her brother soiling his family with marriage to Jane. Initially, she is every bit as shallow and vapid as she is portrayed in the original book and every film version out there. She is in the marriage game to win a title and buckets of money and couldn’t care less if she actually likes the man to whom she is married as long as he has both those things.

Enter Nathan Kerr, the third son of a Duke. As such, it’s unlikely he’ll ever inherit the title or wealth that comes along with it, and so, after years of being a total rake, he decided to turn over a new leaf and become a vicar. Of course, the Duke his brother is dear friends with Darcy, so he is Darcy’s vicar. Most of the people in Darcy’s vicarage don’t know Lord Nathan’s noble lineage and that’s how he likes it. And of course, when Caroline meets him at Pemberley for the dual weddings to be held in a few days’ time, she is attracted to him because he attends initially not as the vicar but as the brother of a Duke.

Caroline is torn because she finds, to her astonishment, that she likes him, but she’s conflicted because he doesn’t actually have any money or titles of his own. She largely acts like the spoiled brat she is until suddenly she seems to have some kind of epiphany and starts trying to act nice. Nathan is also taken with her, for she is a beautiful and accomplished woman, but he is concerned that she is too shallow and selfish to be a good vicar’s wife. And, well, the course of true love never did run smooth…

The story was pleasing and moved along at a fast pace. It was fun to see Caroline after the events of Pride and Prejudice, because I do love a good revision of a well-known story, or a tale that focuses on a secondary character. It was interesting to see Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy, and Bingley in the role of minor characters here. They were all interesting and seemed to adhere to their beloved characteristics for the most part, though I thought Bingley seemed a lot more assertive and harsh than he ever showed in Austen’s novel.

Caroline herself was as arrogant and self-centered as ever, at least at first. I felt her change of heart from social-climbing gold-digger to selfless and compassionate friend occurred a bit too suddenly to be entirely believable. She went from being utterly horrid to kind and selfless practically overnight. Maybe it can happen, but it was a little hard to believe. Maybe it doesn’t matter, though, because she ends up being a worthwhile person who is caring and kind and she never was before. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care if a person makes a change suddenly or slowly, as long as they turn out as decent human beings. Caroline did turn out to be a person I could like as opposed to the woman I’d cross the street to avoid. It was nice to see her make friends and grow into her own. In all the ways that mattered, this was very much a coming of age tale for her.

Lord Nathan was an interesting character as well. I liked that he was sort of a play on the soldier-or-noble-turned-monk (or nun) trope that we often see in medieval mysteries (a la Brother Cadfael, or Sister Frevisse, for example). He had been a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, came back with some terrible PTSD, and turned to a life of hedonism and self-loathing before turning to the church. In many ways, he was exactly what someone like Miss Bingley needed to set her straight and make her into a likeable person.

Something that is more of an issue with the publisher’s summary than the book itself is that this is really a Christian fiction genre. I don’t read Christian fiction and was turned off that there was no mention at all of it anywhere in the blurb or publishing documents that I could find. By the time I figured that out, I had already committed to reviewing the book and didn’t want to quit, and also it wasn’t beating me over the head, so I forged on. However, it may not be to everyone’s taste and I feel a fair warning would be in order. I do wonder, also if perhaps the 1950s Hollywood image-type lady on the cover is a little out of place? Something more fitting for the period would be better perhaps?

Overall, my minor quibbles aside, this really was a light and sweet story with a lovely happily ever after. It was a fast read and kept me entertained throughout well enough. I think fans of Austen will be happy to read a story about Caroline Bingley, who is given fair treatment here and a voice of her own, something I always love to see.

© Kristen McQuinn

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