Saturday 15 June 2019

Review: The Bronte Project, Jennifer Vandever (2006)

Most of the novels I review for this blog are set during the nineteenth century—Jennifer’s Vandever’s 2006 The Bronte Project is not.

Her protagonist, Sara Frost, is a struggling academic in twenty-first-century New York City, who’s on a quest to discover lost letters to shine more light on Charlotte Bronte’s unrequited passion for her Belgian schoolteacher. But Charlotte’s love life isn’t the only one on the rocks. At 28, Sara is left reeling when her fiancé abandons her to live down and out in Paris, imitating his hero, George Orwell. ‘Moving on’ is hard when you’re still safeguarding an ex’s beloved first editions and when the other men in your orbit are an alcoholic Hollywood producer who wants you to sex up the Brontes and a Frenchman with a penchant for breaking into your apartment and calling people poems who might or might not be sleeping with his half-sister.

The Bronte Project, as you may be gathering, is pretty silly stuff, but what’s fun about it is how the novel defies expectations about the trajectory of women’s fiction. Without giving away the ending, neither Sara’s romantic journey nor her work on the Bronte siblings concludes as I imagined in the opening pages, which felt like the first twenty minutes of a predictable rom com. As long as you don’t go into this expecting a heart-warming romance, you’re sure to be entertained.

Jennifer Vandever (1968- )
Vandever is strongest as a satirist, turning a critical eye on New York vs. LA culture and the trappings of modern academia. One of her best-realised characters is Claire Vigee, a rising star at the university who’s pioneering the field of ‘Diana Studies’, centred on the life of the late princess. In fact Princess Diana, at times, seems to take over the novel as its central reference point, rather than the Brontes. For a Victorianist, it’s disappointing that, aside from the inclusion of quotes from Charlotte at the opening of each chapter and a few extended passages to educate readers on the siblings’ lives, the engagement with Bronte trivia is pretty superficial.

Overall, The Bronte Project is a light and funny read, with original quirks and good prose. If you want to bring the Brontes with you to the beach this summer, it could be worth picking up.

Do you know of any other contemporary novels with a nineteenth century twist you think the Secret Victorianist should read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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