Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley

I promise this won’t be an entirely chick-lit blog, I’ve just recently been on chick-lit kick (I get those – more on that another time). Dear Mr. Knightley

This one started because I was talking to a friend about Jane Austen’s Emma. I first read it in high school and found the titular character an annoying brat (as do most people I presume) but was drawn to Mr. Knightley. Enter a fellow bookworm friend who insisted I see the Gwyneth Paltrow film version for the swoon-inducing Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley.

Now I fully admit that Colin Firth as Darcy is probably the pinnacle of Austen hero-dom, but there was always something about Knightley. Scores of authors have redone Pride and Prejudice with zombies, as murder mysteries, even a terrible Bollywood film. So I was intrigued that Reay chose to focus her novel on a more obscure Austen character.

Unfortunately there was a lack of Knightley. Samantha Moore, the heroine, has been in and out of foster homes her whole life.  This has caused her to withdraw into her books, quoting characters instead of expressing personal emotions and incapable of building relationships with real people. After failing at real employment, a kindly priest helps her gain a scholarship to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism from a mysterious benefactor. Her benefactor adopts the pseudonym Mr. Knightley and imposes the requirement that she must write to him frequently about her schooling if she wants to keep her scholarship.

Sam spends the book struggling both to gain a foothold in the journalism world by impressing her college professor and to sustain and deepen relationships with her friends, family, and potential romantic interests. One of those love interests is Alex, an attractive crime novelist, who helps her come out of her shell.

The problem is that Sam is more of a Mary Bennet than anything else. She’s emotionally flat and self-pitying to the point of martyrdom – although she had a tough life, her roboticness for much of the book taints sympathy for her character. The book improved significantly once she got around to actually appreciating the people who were trying to help her, rather than lashing out or pushing them away. As a non-spoiler example, one of her few and best friends gets engaged and she doesn’t even congratulate her or try to act happy. Small acts like that frustrated me and made me dislike her for her self-indulgence.

Once I got past Sam’s major character flaws and the lack of a Mr.Knightley-esque character (beyond just the name), I could enjoy the obvious conclusion to some degree. As with most chick-lit, things tie up for a happier ever after, but I was alright with that.

3 Stars

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