Finally…JaneiteJournal’s review of Jennifer Ziegler’s Sense and Sensibility inspired novel for S&S month!
When I heard about Sass and Serendipity, I must admit, I was sceptical. I am sick of our beloved Sense and Sensibility being used as a framework for cheesy adaptations- like the recent film ‘From Prada to Nada’, which basically nicked Austen’s storyline but ruined her characters and her overall point.
However, I was happy to find that Sass and Serendipity, from the first chapter, was true enough to Austen, for me to read on.
And I am pleased that I did, because for all it is indeed a teen novel, it has an age transcendent storyline, which is, of course, one of the great appeals of the original S&S.
In Sass and Serendipity, the Dashwoods become the Riveras: Gabby and Daphne Rivera to be precise. However the fixtures and fittings of Austen’s well loved novel is all there- the girls and their mother are forced to find a new home in the aftermath of an upsetting divorce – a modern spin on Mr Dashwood’s death, leaving his daughters and widow virtually penniless.
So the setting may be new, and the time may be now, but you can’t really go wrong with the basic, bare bones of Sense and Sensibility for a successful plot. On this skeleton, Ziegler builds up a story of her own which can appeal to a modern audience; especially to a teenage girl. The plot follows both sisters’ struggles to cope with their parents’ divorce whilst pursuing their respective love lives and happiness. Whilst practical Gabby works every hour God sends to help her mother pay the rent at the same time as studying to get into college, Daphne is more concerned with who she is going to fall in love with next, and what she’s going to wear for prom.
The characters do not however, as I initially feared, fall into the American-teen-movie stereotypes. These girls are deep. Though they were based on Elinor and Marianne, I found that the sisters were the Dashwoods at their extremes. Gabby is far more stern, bitter and almost heartlessly pragmatic than Elinor ever was, but similarly internalises most of her feelings for reasons not dissimilar to the elder Miss Dashwood’s. Daphne was closer to Marianne in character, though I fear, even more foolish. She is too romantic for her own good, wilful and a bit ditzy. These new extremes to the characters are what makes them fit in the twenty first century though. You can’t take Austen and replicate her characters now without tweaking them to fit the times, and Ziegler did this skilfully, adding new dimensions to the well known characters under the influence of modern culture. Gabby is Elinor turned against the world because of mistrust of men she got from her parents’ divorce. Daphne is Marianne subjected to a Disney Princess upbringing, countless teen magazines and the terrifying hierarchy of American high school. And surprisingly, it works.
The characters are identifiable, as all of Austen’s women are. As an elder sister who has to pick up a lot of my sibling’s slack, I identified most with Gabby, as I do with Elinor, and it was interesting to see a version of my favourite character so much closer to me in terms of time and predicament.
So, I hear you ask, she’s got the Dashwoods right, but what about the men?
This is where the story really took on Ziegler’s own ideas and plot. While there is an identifiable pattern emerging in the form of a Willoughby and a Colonel Brandon (which I won’t spoil – read the book instead!), there are other male interests, none of whom I could really think of as an Edward Ferrars, which was a shame, but made more sense to this modern, very hardened Elinor’s (Gabby) plotline. You get the feeling that she wouldn’t have put up with any of Lucy Steele’s crap. Ziegler also omitted, to my slight disappointment, Austen’s curse of the ‘W’. Willoughby and Wickham are her two most notorious blackguards, but the deceiver in Sass and Serendipity is harder to spot, I’m afraid. He had me going for a moment, actually…
I think what I liked most about this novel though, was the sister-centric focus. Although the two sisters are so dissimilar they can barely speak to each other without starting an argument, and the plot follows two separate stories – when the sisters’ lives intermingle it’s at its most moving and identifiable, especially for those with one or more sister. There was actually a scene in there which I have experienced myself – when trying to be nice to her younger sister, Gabby earnestly tries to take an interest in Daphne’s prom dress, even though she thinks it’s a waste of money, a waste of time and looks absolutely ridiculous. There’s also a lot of tough love from Gabby to Daphne that Daphne just doesn’t appreciate. I found it hard to sympathise with Daphne at times because I couldn’t believe anyone could be so dopey, and I felt frustrated on Gabby’s behalf.
It’s a novel that definitely draws you in, but is an easy read, and ultimately, in my case, makes you take sides. Everyone identifies with one Austen character or another, and bringing them bang up to date in a modern adaptation only made me realise even more how much of an ‘Elinor’ I am at times. Maybe it’s an elder sister thing…
One of the reviews on the cover was that this book would ‘leave you hugging your sister.’ When I turned the final page I did indeed feel a pang that I’d been quite harsh with her lately, and tried to get her to read Sass and Serendipity for herself. She then twisted her face so much though, I felt like hitting her with it, oh so happy that I had a hardback copy. And that is why I think Sass and Serendipity works. Gabby and Daphne are real sisters – at each other’s throats one minute, and best of friends the next. It’s a book about love, family, forgiveness and friendship, and to a certain extent – healing. The girls have to go through a lot of hardship with leaves both of them with sore spots, wounded prides and broken hearts.
The novel managed, most of the time, to remain aloof on the mushy side, and focus more on drama. It did however, feel a little corny at times, but I think that may have just been my British unfamiliarity with some of American phraseology, and I must admit, I did expect a bit off fluff. I don’t think you can have a novel full of bitterness, anger and heartbreak without a bit of a fluffy reward at some point. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?
Sense and Sensibility slid surprisingly seamlessly into the twenty first century, because of Ziegler’s well crafted new dimensions to the characters, variations in storyline and above all, respect for Austen’s original. The characters were genuinely based on Marianne and Elinor, Willoughby and Brandon without changing them beyond recognition. It was an interesting, engaging re-telling which worked well in a modern setting and provided janeites with a new ‘spin-off’ or ‘based-on’ book (whatever you want to call them) that we don’t have to be ashamed of, for once. It managed all this, and there wasn’t a sea monster in sight.