"I do not know how I have come to be in this time, in this place, in this body. But I do know that any place where there are six novels by the author of "Pride and Prejudice" must be a very special sort of heaven.
— "Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict
My favorite read of last summer was Laurie Viera Rigler's novel, "Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict." I admit right up front that I read it straight through, read it again immediately and then bought it for a friend. Courtney Stone, the Austen addict of the title and 21st century resident of L.A., wakes up one morning in Austen's world. Since she's in the body — complete with voice and mannerisms — of a young woman of the era, her vociferous protestations about who she really is are met by her 'family' with disbelief and anger, almost landing her in an asylum; a fate much worse than merely being a powerless 18th century female.
Last summer's offering was so smart and funny that I had no doubt about Rigler's ability to do it again. Thus I bought her just-released hardcover book, "Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict," without even glancing at the jacket. So I was a bit chagrined when I opened the book and realized it was the tale of what befell the other woman: Jane Mansfield, a perfect Austen name as well as a bit of L.A. humor.
I'm like anyone who picked up the first book: A big Jane Austen fan who likes to fantasize about life in Regency England. Reverse time travel — from then to now — is much less appealing to me because I live now. I confess I expected the book to be all "Kate & Leopold" jokes and slapstick humor about modern conveniences. Instead Rigler does what she did so well in the first book; she makes you think (along with her protagonists) about the nature of time, of appearance vs. reality, of how to live in the present no matter when that is.
Of course, you can't have an 18th century English woman wake up in L.A without some humor. But it's more amusing and far less silly in print than it would have to be in a film version of this story. And once our heroine learns about computers — and Google — she can educate herself about things that confuse her much more easily than her counterpart, who must rely on what she read before she arrived in the past and what she can deduce through subtle questioning.
Like Austen, Rigler's books are mainly abut social interactions; a subject that's equally interesting and confusing no matter the era. Courtney, along with the book's readers, knows what was expected of an 18th century single woman. But imagine trying to navigate today's social and sexual mores; it's a minefield — even for those of us who actually live now!
"Rude Awakenings" sent me back to "Confessions" again to refresh myself on the characters and events in both eras, since the longer these women are out of their own time, the more their own distinct personality is subsumed by that of the woman whose body they inhabit. That realization and what to do about it are what make both books absorbing. "Whose life is it" is the critical question. And do you make decisions based on what you want or what might be best for the other woman — who may yet return.
Since the subject is time travel, the stories do contain a not-unexpected element of magic realism, which doesn't overwhelm or detract from the reality of the events. And what does each woman consider most enviable about the era in which she finds herself? Our contemporary heroine luxuriates in the quiet of a life without constant noise, while the 18th century woman is appreciative of water on demand, reading without candles and more Austen novels than existed when she left home.
Courtney and Jane are two young women who seem like they would never be friends if they lived in the same era; despite the fact that each one's life is in disarray. Yet they each learn from the other: How to think about themselves and the world in ways neither imagined in her former life.