Jane Austen fans, rejoice: There is such thing as a good Pride and Prejudice spinoff! After reading (and hating) Me and Mr Darcy, I wasn't keen on books based on Austen. But when my mother in law put Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll in my hands and said, "I think you'll like this," I trusted her.
When she paused and then added, "It has a lot of sex, though," I laughed. I couldn't tell if that was supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing! I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a funny, well-written story that straddles the line between a parody and a tribute. The dialogue is so over-the-top, it's hilarious. But underneath the ridiculousness, I found a solid and engaging plot.
Just a few pages into the story, we find Lizzie and Jane recently engaged to Darcy and Bingley. Shameless Lydia wants to borrow money from her soon-to-be-wealthy sisters. So she unsuccessfully tries to ingratiate herself upon them by describing married life: "Your husband's manly member will swell big and red and hard and angry and enormous!" At that point, I was laughing so hard that I could barely hold the book. I thought, Okay, so it's going to be that kind of story. Since I was in the mood to laugh, I kept reading.
Just as Lydia predicted, there are plenty of, um, carnal descriptions of marital felicity. Some people don't like to read about sex at all, ever, and those people need to avoid this book. Me? I don't mind sex in books as long as it's well-written (George R.R. Martin, please stop writing sex scenes) and all characters involved seem to be actively participating and having a good time (Angelmonster, you failed miserably at this).
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife begins with Mr. Darcy taking his wife over and over and over again. It's what I would expect from a couple who is deeply attracted to each other but chose not to be intimate until after marriage. What I didn't expect was for Lizzy to take such a playful and imaginative role in the bedroom. Unlike many authors, Berdoll doesn't make her female characters lie inert while sex happens at them, and I like that a lot.
Once Mr. and Mrs. Darcy have mastered the art of conjugal congress, life outside the bedroom resumes. Mrs. Darcy is introduced to high society, and the rest of the book is merry series of subplots and intrigues involving my favorite supporting characters and a few characters invented by Berdoll. We meet the French courtesan who schooled Darcy in the art of love and the young Pemberly servant who may or not be Darcy's illegitimate son. Mr. Collins continues to embarrass himself at every chance. Lady Catherine continues to plot against Lizzie. Jane continues to be too sweet for her own good. It isn't Austen, but it kept me reading late into the night because it's a lot of fun.
And that's what you must remember: Jane Austen has been dead since 1817. No one else is going to be Austen, so fervent Janeites who expect this book to read exactly like a genuine Austen novel will be disappointed. I've seen plenty of indignant one-star reviews from incensed readers: "Berdoll managed to make a complete mockery of Jane Austen's timeless classic. She has sullied the name of Elizabeth Bennett." To these reviewers I say, Relax. Reading is supposed to be fun.
There is just one problem I want to warn readers about: If you intend to read Berdoll's second book about Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, stop reading at the end of chapter 87. After chapter 87, Berdoll writes a series of short chapters that serve as an epilogue. They describe the fate of every single character, even the most minor servants and neighbors. Berdoll's second novel, Darcy and Elizabeth, doesn't introduce any new information; it's a long, drawn-out version of the epilogue. It feels like a waste! I'm halfway through Darcy and Elizabeth now, and it's been a dull read because I already know what is going to happen.
In sum: If you don't mind reading about sex (and sex, and more sex) between a happily married couple, then put your pretensions aside, enjoy the silliness, and stop reading after chapter 87.