I should have learnt my lesson last time I hunted down a continuation to Jane Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons.
And then Book Depository recommended this for me... Joan Aiken's 'completion' of Jane Austen's fragment: The Watsons & Emma Watson. Of course I had to have it.
The last time I tried John Coates' continuation I was disappointed, even though it wasn't a bad book, simply because I loved the original fragment so much that it would be hard for anyone else to satisfactorily complete it. But I wondered if maybe this would be better.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn't... not really. Again, it wasn't a bad book. It was fairly readable. It was somewhat higher quality than most of the fanfiction I used to obsessively read.
But it certainly wasn't Jane Austen.
It would be asking a lot to expect that. Nevertheless, it's sad. I actually think the author here bit off more than she could chew - normally, with fanfiction, you can start a new story, featuring a new perspective, and so the comparison is not so transparent. In this case, the reader has to read Jane Austen's unfinished text right at the beginning, and the new part needs to seamlessly flow on from that. It did not.
The main problems:
- Characterisation - The characters we had already met changed slightly, and subtly modernised. New characters introduced into the story were pretty two-dimensional.
- Odd and unnecessary plot twists - Aiken chose to kill off some critical characters - Jane Austen herself indicated to her sister that one character would have died if she had finished the book - but the others, I think, were completely unnecessary, and it just didn't feel like the sort of decision Austen would have made for the plot.
- How the book ended - The ending raced to its conclusion in an oddly unsatisfying way. I also think that the author should have paid slightly more attention to Austen's own intentions for the book. I get that you have to do what works for the story as you actually write it, but the inspiration for this book did not belong to Joan Aiken, and yet she chose to send the book in a different direction than Austen said she would have.
- Period detail overkill - The author was way too keen to include period detail, as if to say, "look, look, I've done my research!" It was all detail that I can't see Austen getting into - she didn't need to include it because her readers would have understood. I guess your opinion on this might differ based on your expectations of the book - I expected to see a "completion" of Jane Austen's manuscript, not a new book directed at modern readers.
Having said all that... the book's not bad. It's a pretty good effort at fanfiction, in my opinion, as fanfiction attempts go. But it's quite a big claim to make - that you are "completing" a Jane Austen novel - and I'm afraid I was consequently slightly more judgmental than I might otherwise have been. Two stars from me.