Mary, the bookish ugly duckling of Pride and Prejudice’s five Bennet sisters, emerges from the shadows and transforms into a desired woman with choices of her own.
What if Mary Bennet’s life took a different path from that laid out for her in Pride and Prejudice? What if the frustrated intellectual of the Bennet family, the marginalized middle daughter, the plain girl who takes refuge in her books, eventually found the fulfillment enjoyed by her prettier, more confident sisters? This is the plot of The Other Bennet Sister, a debut novel with exactly the affection and authority to satisfy Austen fans.
Ultimately, Mary’s journey is like that taken by every Austen heroine. She learns that she can only expect joy when she has accepted who she really is. She must throw off the false expectations and wrong ideas that have combined to obscure her true nature and prevented her from what makes her happy. Only when she undergoes this evolution does she have a chance at finding fulfillment; only then does she have the clarity to recognize her partner when he presents himself—and only at that moment is she genuinely worthy of love.
Mary’s destiny diverges from that of her sisters. It does not involve broad acres or landed gentry. But it does include a man; and, as in all Austen novels, Mary must decide whether he is the truly the one for her.
The Other Bennet Sister examines the life of the least liked of the Bennet sisters and attempts to redress the balance by showing how Mary’s judgemental behaviour is a result of emotional abuse she received from her mother for not being as brilliant as her sisters. At this point, Hadlow retells large chunks of Pride and Prejudice, albeit from Mary’s point of view, to help us understand why she behaves as she does, however it failed to engender my sympathy as I never believed growing up in the Bennet family was as bad as portrayed.
The problem is Mary decides if she can’t be as vivacious as her sisters, then she is going to be the opposite and it leads her to choose a rather austere life that only serves to make her appear to act superior. Too much time is spent on contrasting Mary’s actions to those of her sisters and all it does is emphasise how unlikeable she has become as she gets trapped in her own ideology. The first part of the book, told within the Pride and Prejudice timeframe, is way too long and could have been cut down drastically.
Once the author moves ahead a couple of years, all of Mary’s sisters have settled into married life and the unexpected death of Mr. Bennet means Mary and her mother have lost their home. Mary is forced to spend her time moving from one sister to another until they grow tired of her and she finds herself at a loss until she decides to stay with her maternal aunt. Mary basks in the sudden attention she receives within the Gardiner family as her aunt refuses to let her hide behind the facade she has created. As Mary begins to realise her earlier decisions were poor ones, she starts to shine and even finds herself having to choose between two suitors.
The Other Bennet Sister was a nice idea but it didn’t really make me feel like I understood Mary any better and probably made me find her even more irritating at times. Of course, like all Jane Austen heroines, Mary gets her reward in the end but it was a long time coming.