Elizabeth Berg’s Night of Miracles is the sequel to The Story of Arthur Trulov. What a happy surprise to discover that some of the characters from Trulov continue in Berg’s newest novel. Lucille and Maddy are back, as well as a lot of new folks from Mason, MO.
Berg does a great job of altering the prism through which we see the small Missouri town; it serves as the nexus for the various characters in this book. For example, Iris’ story starts in Boston but, after her divorce, she makes a detour to Mason and her story comes to fruition there.
The town diner, Polly’s Henhouse, serves as a new setting with new characters. Polly and Monica work there, and interact with regular customers like Tiny and Iris. Iris, then, connects us back to Lucille. Iris eventually gets a job working for Lucille, facilitating her cooking classes. This web reflects how life in a small town works.
Berg changes point of view for each character, too, so we are privileged to peek into their interior life, and yet we also view how they are seen in the community. It’s a good reminder that we exist in other people’s minds in an entirely different way than how we exist in our own. We give ourselves much more latitude, and are much more forgiving of our own faults and idiosyncrasies. It’s interesting to see Lucille through Lucille’s eyes, rather than through Arthur’s, who thought, at least initially, that Lucille was pretty annoying. We see instead Lucille’s frailty and admire the lifetime’s worth of knowledge and skill that she puts into her baking.
Once again, Berg creates a world in which we gradually get to know and love the very human people who inhabit it. I wouldn’t mind spending time in Mason, myself but I’m pretty sure that it exists only on paper.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a mystery set 6 years after Pride & Prejudice, when Lizzie’s disgraced sister Lydia comes to the Darcy estate screaming that her husband – the notorious rogue George Wickham – has been murdered. Everyone has a different opinion on Pride & Prejudice sequels. “Glorified fanfiction,” some say. “Total crap,” or “completely wonderful,” say others. I think the line between success and failure depends not only on good writing, setting, plotting, and characters, but on a critical distinction: no one but Jane Austen should write Jane Austen’s characters. Elizabeth’s wit and Darcy’s mysterious motives are the critical features that make Pride & Prejudice such an enduring classic, and any other authors trying to inhabit these characters inevitably struggle to do as well as Austen did. P.D. James, although an accomplished and talented author by any definition, is regrettably no exception. Her Darcy is wooden and boring, her Elizabeth does little but turn up every 25 pages and agree with her husband, and her speculation on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s future and character is hardly in line with the lovable, friendly man we know from P&P. The characters she invents – a dashing suitor for Georgiana, the staff of Pemberley – are much more vivid and entertaining.
James can turn a phrase admirably; even in its most stilted information-dumping passages (lots of early 19th century criminal law needs to be explained – feel free to skim these parts), the writing isn’t at fault here. It’s revealing that the best chapter of the entire book is the first one, where James neatly summarizes the events of Pride & Prejudice and weaves in the 6 years of additional plot she’s invented. You would expect a summary to be boring, but this one’s remarkably engaging; it’s the plodding mystery that stalls this book.
If you love mysteries and you love Austen continuations, give Death Comes to Pemberley a try. Although truth be told, you might be happier re-reading the original, especially if you’re an Austen purist or a demanding mystery fan. Despite a few good ideas, this book doesn’t satisfy on either end of that spectrum.