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You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to become enraptured in The Austen Escape. Katherine Reay’s latest women’s fiction novel is very much a classic coming-of-age story with historic and modern twists. Even the two settings are emblematic of old and new eras.
The novel opens in Austin, Texas, a tech hub, where the main character, Mary Davies, is struggling with a project at a startup engineering design firm. When her childhood best friend and Jane Austen scholar invites her to visit Austen’s hometown of Bath, England, to finish her dissertation, Mary accepts, hoping the trip will help her forget her work woes and the company consultant she’s been crushing on for the past year.
While the book ticks along slowly at first, the road winds to pure enchantment in Bath. Scenes of fly fishing, dialogue, piano playing, and dancing unfold in flowing prose. But Mary and friend Isabel Dwyer wrestle with some huge obstacles: shortly after arriving in England, Isabel loses her memory and believes she’s living in the 19th century while Mary discovers that her friend is not who she thought she was.
In the midst of such conflict, Reay drops in many pearls, and often uses Mary, with limited life experience, as the source. Savor this one: “Music is math, and once you understand that… How can anyone not be in awe? It’s the audible expression behind the laws of the universe. It feels like the only thing, apart from God, that lives outside time. Once released, it lives on and it can make you laugh and cry, rip you apart and heal you, all within a few discrete notes strung together. And while it follows rules, expression is limitless.”
As Mary comes to more clearly understand life and work through her experiences in Bath and Austin, her coming of age can only be described as sublime.