It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and this definitely seems to ring true in the case of Rachel Francis, author of 2012’s “Life on Fire.” An up-and-coming writer, particularly in the styles of paranormal and comic fantasy, Francis has modeled her sophomore effort, “Proper Secrets,” quite remarkably on Austen’s work — in particular on her most famous work, “Pride and Prejudice.” The initial plot, even, matches that of “Pride and Prejudice,” as the novel begins with two sisters (who are also best friends) meeting a handsome stranger upon an excursion into town. They then discover that he has taken a house nearby and that their father has already invited him to dinner.
As the plot advances, however, and more is revealed about the characters and the world in which they live, it becomes clear that this is more than just an Austen copy. Set in an “alternate Europe,” Emily Worthing and her family live in Endland, which adheres not to Christianity but to a religion created by Francis that follows the Four Virtuous, the founders of Endland. Despite Francis’s successful efforts to create a story inspired by Austen, one of her biggest literary role models, Francis echoes Austen a little too closely: In Emily Worthing, the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet is clear; in Bridget, Emily’s sister, Jane Bennet appears. As the novel progresses, the story slowly but surely begins to pull away from the Austen arc but retains the bones of an Austen work. On the structure of an Austen work, Francis said, “I love how it is actually a very strict, bound form of storytelling. It’s extremely dialogue-heavy, and you get to illustrate a lot of social commentary just by using mannerisms and the dialogue and the characters.” Francis’s work is undoubtedly dialogue-heavy too — to the point that, at times, it feels mechanical and falters a little, detracting from the story by not allowing the reader to fully immerse themselves in it. Rather than creating a dialogue that allows the reader to perceive things that characters cannot and creates a sense of dramatic irony, Francis’s dialogue occasionally comes across as if the two characters talking are just going through the motions in order for Francis to inform the reader instead of establishing a genuine connection.
While Francis has been heavily influenced by Austen, she’s also drawn a great deal of her inspiration from the modern world and the spectrum of the way women are presented in books today, from “Fifty Shades of Grey” to Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman.” “My book definitely fits in on the spectrum (of recent books marketed to women that say that) feminism should be about women having choices,” Francis said. “You don’t want to tell someone either way how to run their lives, you know. You don’t want to go up to someone and say, ‘You must have a career; you’re not a real woman,’ and you don’t want to go up to a woman and say ‘You must have children, or you’re not a real woman.’ Either way is, in my opinion, still limiting. And my book, if it could say anything, I just want it to say, ‘Think. If your relationship is not giving you what you need, think about it and make that healthy choice.’”
It’s making these healthy, often difficult, choices that is at the heart of “Proper Secrets,” and part of what sets it apart from many of the other romance-novel offerings to women these days. Speaking about “Twilight” in particular, Francis says, “There was no real Bella there (in ‘Twilight’), apart from ‘I like to read books.’” Francis “was fascinated by the chords (Bella) was striking — with young girls especially. It’s fascinating. It’s unrealistic, but it’s fascinating.” “Proper Secrets” partially “came from a lot of the reaction I was seeing to books like ‘Twilight,’ for instance, where people, especially women, were craving romances that were more like addiction instead of healthy, normal relationships.” “Proper Secrets” and “Twilight” overlap in one area, a gripping love story, but elsewhere? “Proper Secrets” pulls far away with a strong, developed, admirable female lead and character development, but it still retains the fast-paced excitement needed for a good read.
Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].