In the second installment of the Austen Project, which has contemporary writers updating the classic novels, McDermid (Cross and Burn, 2013, etc.) strives to reinvigorate an overlooked Gothic parody with a 21st-century makeover.
Clergyman’s daughter Catherine Morland is known as Cat in her latter-day incarnation. She posts selfies to Facebook and fuels an overactive imagination reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies rather than The Mysteries of Udolpho. Nevertheless, home schooling and a rural upbringing have kept her almost as naïve as Austen’s 17-year-old heroine. Cat’s big shot at longed-for adventure comes when some neighbors invite her to accompany them to the Edinburgh Festival for the summer. There she meets brash Bella Thorpe; her boorish brother, Johnny; and the refined Tilney siblings, Henry and Ellie. Cat moons after Henry, Johnny pursues Cat, and Bella has a thing for Cat’s older brother, James, who unexpectedly visits. As romantic intrigue thickens, the novel’s plot sticks doggedly to the original. This does McDermid no favors. Though brisk, her prose lacks Austen’s zingy insights and tart dialogue. Henry and Cat’s conversations about literature feel forced, and incessant references to social media are as glib as the girls’ OMGs and WTFs. When Cat finally escapes Edinburgh for the Tilney family pile of the title, she stumbles upon what initially promises to be a gruesome mystery. In other circumstances, this would play to McDermid’s strengths. Here, it only adds to the feeling of being trapped in a teen movie.
Northanger Abbey is frequently thought of alongside Austen’s juvenilia. Too often, this oddly literal reimagining comes off as simply juvenile.