This debut novel is a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the quiet middle sister, Mary Bennet.
Chen begins by highlighting Mary’s plainness and lack of charm, which her older sisters, Jane and Lizzy, possess in spades. “Over time, my plainness had become a second, unshakeable religion,” she says, and her obsession with her own looks is rivaled only by the frequency with which those around her cruelly point to her ugliness and lack of personality. But here, Mary is shaped into a feminist hero; she finds “silent rebellion” in her books and educates herself to pass the time while her parents push suitors on her older sisters. Chen’s syntax is not a direct copy of Austen’s, but it complements the source material in its complexity and serves as a comfortable echo of both the period and Mary’s pensive personality. Part I sees Mary falling for Mr. Collins at Longbourn. “No wonder unrequited love is so hard on our sex,” she says, “for it cannot empower or embolden us, and she who is rejected must alone suffer the humiliation for having indulged in dreams which were never her right to entertain.” In parts II and III, the plot moves beyond Longbourn and the end of Pride and Prejudice. Mary moves to Pemberley with Lizzy and Darcy; it turns her “soft and nonsensical,” but it exposes her to the sad reality of their marriage. There, she meets Col. Fitzwilliam and has to confront her old attitudes about men: “No amount of effort can convince a man to take an interest in a woman he has already determined to find uninteresting,” she thinks, so when Fitzwilliam does take an interest in her, she must decide whether she trusts his attention to be true.
Janeites won’t find a perfect heir to Austen here, but as fan fiction, or a fresh novel of manners, Chen's work is compelling.