Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Almost totes amazeballs!

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

northanger abbey mcdermidThis may be the most disappointing thing I will read this year. After the abomination that was Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, I was confident – oh, so confident – about the inevitable direness of Val McDermid’s entry for the Austen Project –  Northanger Abbey. There I was – poison pen at the ready, sarcasm ready to drip like venom, scalpel sharpened to rip the very heart out of it – and dang me if it doesn’t turn out the book’s not too bad at all! In fact – and you’ll never know how much it hurts me to say this – it’s actually quite good fun.

To be fair, McDermid’s task was always going to be easier than Trollope’s. While Austen’s Sense & Sensibility is a serious book which casts a penetrating light on aspects of the society of her time that no longer exist in ours, Northanger Abbey is a much lighter concoction that deals with the eternal subjects of true and false love, and obsession with literary trends. So, while I remain unconvinced of the need or merit of updating Austen at all, this is probably the one that lends itself most easily to updating.

After an hour of being whirled and birled, of Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants, of pas de bahs and dos a dos, they broke for refreshments. Cat was uncomfortably aware that she was sweating like an ill-conditioned pony and that Henry seemed positively cool by comparison.

Edinburgh Book Festival - in sunshine!
Edinburgh Book Festival – in sunshine!

Our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. And, as in the original, she’s even more thrilled when she is befriended by Bella Thorpe, never thinking that Bella may see her only as a way to get closer to Cat’s brother James. When tickets arrive for a Ball, Susie sends Cat off to get lessons in Scottish country dancing, where she meets the handsome, charming, mysterious and slightly exotic Henry Tilney, who also happens to be a superb dancer (slight pause while we all swoon, girls). All it would take for Henry to be perfect would be if he happened to live in a Gothic Abbey in the Borders and had some mysterious secret in his family…and what a coincidence! He does! And soon Cat is invited for a visit to Northanger Abbey, where she can indulge her romantic imagination to the full…

Before she could open the book, there was a clap of thunder so loud and so close that Cat cried out in terror. The room was abruptly plunged into darkness and a second deafening thunderclap vibrated through the air. Cat curled into a ball and moaned softly. What terrible powers had her discovery unleashed?

Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story but has made some changes to the characters and plot to make it fit better in a modern world. Cat isn’t quite as hero-worshipping as Catherine from the original – she’s very taken with Henry and ready to learn from him but she’s got plenty of character of her own. McDermid has solved the problem of modern technology by siting the Abbey in a reception blackspot, and has used the current obsession for vampire novels very amusingly as a replacement for the ‘horrid novels’ of the original. (I hoped they might be real books – Poltergeist Plague of Pabbay, Vampires on Vatersay – but alas! It appears not.) McDermid is a Scottish author, of course, so gives an authentic and wryly humorous flavour of the hugely popular Edinburgh Festival, often as noted for the peculiarity of some of the productions as for their quality. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.

Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?

Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival
Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival

The book isn’t perfect and there are a few things that grated a bit. John Thorpe, a money-grasping buffoon in the original, appears to have turned into some kind of anti-Semitic fascist in this one, which seemed a little odd. The updating of the language has replaced Austen’s deliciously light wit with a heavy blunt instrument in too many places. And the big reveal at the end, as to why Henry’s father should suddenly have changed towards Cat, is the main disappointment of the book – McDermid’s choice of reason was sadly very typical of her and not at all within the spirit of the book, I felt – old or new version.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

However, overall I have to admit that I enjoyed this quite a lot and, while it will never compete with the original for any true Austen fan, it is a light, fun read with enough of an edge to avoid being just throwaway chick-lit. So this grumpy and disappointed reviewer is left with nothing to do but congratulate Val McDermid on achieving the impossible – making me give a positive review to one of these hideous Austen Project books. I shall now go off into a dark corner and pout.

PS Do trendy young things really say things are ‘Totes amazeballs’? Both Trollope and McDermid seem to think so. It’s rare for me to be glad I’m no longer groovy…

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine.

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53 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

  1. FictionFan – I’m very glad to hear you liked this so much. I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of the idea of Val McDermid doing Northanger Abbey. McDermid is hugely talented and justly well-regarded. And Northanger Abbey is a fine example of Austen’s lighter work. But together? I wasn’t too sure about that. So very glad it’s worked out for you.


    • I still think the idea is a really bad one…but still, this one turned out to be quite enjoyable. I had the distinct feeling McDermid had a lot of fun writing it…

      Of course, the question is will I be able to resist the rest of them??


  2. I echo Margot’s misgivings: Val McDermid I like, Jane Austen I like – why the necessity to ‘update’ the latter by the former, I don’t quite get. But I’m glad it worked better than some other such adaptations or ‘sequels’ (I did not warm to ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ at all, no matter how much I like P. D. James).


    • I know, I usually hate updatings too and don’t see the point – and I really expected to enjoy hating this one as much as I did Joanna Trollope’s S&S. But I think the Edinburgh setting at the Book Festival added quite a lot of fun to this one…


  3. The first paragraph was special! But, dadblameit, no ripio! Rats and Heifer. Anyway, a lovely review.

    Just because he’s a good dancer you swoon? The professor must be missing something. And I like the castle. I should live in a castle, you know.

    Totes amazeballs? *laughing* Never heard of it. But I am a trendy young thing. I think I’d like to be, at least.


    • I know – I’m so sorry! But your disappointment is no greater than mine…

      Oh, I’m sure I’d swoon for the Professor, even if he doesn’t dance! *winks* Well, the Laird of the Clan McPunchy should definitely have his own Scottish castle – and we have plenty to spare…

      How can you be a trendy young thing when you’re 82? That would be totes amazeballs!


      • We should rip P&P for the heck of it, then.

        You would not! I’d run if you did that. Yes, yes, I’d like a great big castle. With a drawbridge and a moat full of crocodiles and stonefish.

        Well…because… Well. Actually, never been trendy–which is a wonder. And…And…

        Susan, the only way you can bust the professor is to solve the riddle of the professor! I’m sorta like the Sphinx.


        • Wait till the new version comes out – I’m absolutely certain to hate it…and we could do co-ordinated rips!

          No you wouldn’t – not with your skills at waving Mrs Bennet’s salty stuff around! I’ll see what I can do…we don’t get so many crocodiles around here but perhaps Nessie would rent out some of her children…

          I bet my C-W-W is super-trendy! Only a real trend-setter would wear a matching skirt and baseball cap! Totes amazeballs!


          • Oh no. The professor doesn’t read Austen, you know. Never have. I pride myself in that.

            Yeah, I wish I had a bottle of that salty stuff. I’d put it to good use, I think. Nessie’s kids would be perfect!

            Hmm…maybe a double hmm…


            • Never have? But I seem to remember…

              Yes, it would come in useful when you go on your date with Amelia – she’s almost certain to swoon at some point in the evening. *scowls jeaously* Then I shall get that arranged – I thought a nice castle up in the Highlands would suit, perhaps just beside Loch Ness so Nessie could visit…

              Not a huff-hum?


            • (I’ve taken it from my mind. Aren’t you proud?)

              The professor would rather go with you, you know. Don’t make anything of that, btw. And I don’t plan on going anywhere with her… Never!

              And BUS would have to visit.

              Oh yes. That would have been better. Huff-Hum, then.


            • (Very – especially since that will leave a large empty space requiring to be filled. Starting with The Martian… *winks annoyingly* )

              Huh! Why shouldn’t I make something of it, spoilsport? Well, if she gives you any more trouble just let me know – you know how good I am at romantic advice… *chuckles wickedly*

              BUS and Nessie in the same castle? Porpentines all around Scotland are becoming fretful…!!


            • (Oh yes. I need to get that one.)

              Well, what would you make of it? Probably something that would make me hide, you know. You’re great at it! Really.

              And we’ll listen to Gino sing “Living Inside Myself.” You’ll keep BUS happy.


            • (Uh-huh.)

              You’re right – probably best if I don’t. Wouldn’t want to drive the Professor into hiding. Thanks! *smiles wickedly*

              Hmm – I’d rather not. I’ll bring my own iPod…

              No, no, that’s your job…


            • (*shakes head despairingly*)

              From Amelia? Or from FF?

              That is indeed a wonder, though less so when we consider that you’re 82. I do like it, though I’m not fanatical about it (like the Kindle Fire). It’s convenient, and with good headphones or linked to proper speakers the quality is fine for me, though real music people always say it’s not as good as CDs, and they’re probably right I suspect.

              No! Yours!


            • *helps you shake head*

              I’d never hide from FEF! It’s dangerous being a superhero.

              I’m not too picky of the sound quality when I’m listening. However, for mixing, monitors are supposed to be the way.



  4. Well I am utterly, utterly delighted that none of the revamped (hah, perhaps in Val’s case, the word is precisely chosen!) Austen’s tempt me in the teeniest weeniest slightest. Bank balance and book space utterly safe.

    Now were Jane Austen to arise, neck neatly bitten by Count Dracula himself, I might be persuaded to read HER rewriting of a book by Trollope (Joanna) and even McDiarmuid and anyone else who dares to sully with the immortal (well, she might be, with that savaged neck) Jane


    • Haha! I only read it for the pleasure of ripping – the best laid plans! I wait with barely concealed anticipation to see whether the next one will give me a better opportunity to spit bile…


      • But think of the awfulness of having the bad experience of reading the rip – I know, I know, if something is truly awful rather than just a tedious beige slog, the frisson of pencil sharpening venom, polishing the scalpel thrust to the jugular, if you’ll pardon the mawkish mangling of metaphor – is strangely satisfying!


  5. So you think I shouldn’t have run past with eyes averted then? I am glad this one wasn’t dire: I have always been a fan of McDermid and I should have been sorry to be disappointed. As for Trollope (Joanna, not Anthony) though……..ugh! Whether as herself or pseudo-Austen. Super review, by the way.


    • I still don’t think this would be your kind of thing any more than it’s mine really, but she did a pretty good job of it overall. It read as if she’d had a lot of fun writing it. I wait with bated breath for the rest…


  6. It’s fun to discover that something one expects to dislike is not as horrible as expected. I don’t really get the whole thing of rewriting the old classics. As for reading them, there are so many books to read, and so little time that unless I were desperate, I don’t think I would go there.

    I liked that you were pleasantly surprised, though. Thanks for a good review.


  7. I’m glad you liked this but I’m avoiding the series like the plague. I really dislike writers taking other people’s work and rehashing it in this way. There is going to be a whole string of re-writes of Shakespeare’s plays for the celebrations in 2016 and I am already quaking in my shoes.


    • So do I Alex – I’m only reading them because Amazon Vine keep offering me them and it gives me a great opportunity to rip them to shreds…except it didn’t work out that way this time! Oh well, hopefully the rest of the series will be truly dreadful! 😉 Shakespeare?!? Ye Gods! Is nothing sacred? I don’t think even the desire to have a bit of fun with them would be enough to make me read those…


  8. Perhaps your expectations lowered the bar enough for the book to jump over? I, too, am glad you didn’t feel the book was a waste of time, but–as LF said–my money is being channeled elsewhere.


    • Haha! I think there may well have been an aspect of that! But I think moving it to the Edinburgh Festival gave her a chance to have quite a bit of fun with the story, and she clearly had her tongue in her cheek for a lot of it, which was where Trollope went wrong – she took it all far too seriously. Although I quite enjoyed it, I wouldn’t really be recommending it though, unless it happened to take someone’s fancy…but it’s nice light reading for the most part – chick-lit with humour…


  9. I would have had to read this review from the heading alone…. Totes amazeballs review although since I was sure you would hate it, now want to read it myself! I love the change of type of book, in fact I love so much that you have highlighted in this review….


    • Haha! Thanks Cleo! I can see ‘totes amazeballs’ is going to become one of my favourite expressions! I do think you might well enjoy this though – as I said there are a couple of problems with it, but it’s good fun and I enjoyed her humour – ‘last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For’ makes me chuckle every time I read it…

      Oh, and thanks for the tweet! 😀


  10. This didn’t get the same positive comments in some reviews in the weekend newspapers. I. Curious how she solved the problem of having poor Catherine dispatched home without money, surely even a girl hole tutored would have had a credit card and her phone would surely have picked up a signal on e on the way? I’m very much of the same mind as you are re these retakes on clasisics. Why bother!


    • Really? I haven’t seen the newspaper reviews. I’m not going to pretend this is great literature or that it’ll become a classic, but I did think it was an enjoyable romp for the most part. There were issues with the updating of the plot but on the whole I thought McDermid handled them pretty well – much better than Joanna Trollope did in Sense and Sensibility! But I agree – the whole project seems like a pointless waste of time and talent overall. Wish I had the self-control to resist reading them… 😉


    • I think you’ll enjoy it, Angela – it read to me as if Val McDermid had enjoyed herself too while writing it! A departure from her usual style, showing that really good writers can risk a bit of versatility.


  11. I’ve seen Joanna Trollopes S&S around the shops, but haven’t seen this one before. Actually I hadn’t realised that Trollopes S&S was part of a larger entity- I’d somehow missed that the Austen Project existed- a fascinating concept, but I’m not sure what I think of it as a concept. I’ve read a few Austen sequels, some good, some bad. I’m not sure that the actual books need to be updated particularly. I can’t seem to see who will be doing P&P, maybe that hasn’t been announced yet? That would be the one I would be most likely to read out of curiousity. Northanger Abbey isn’t my favourite Austen, and S&S remains the only major Austen I haven’t read.


    • The whole project seems very strange to me, and yet somehow I can’t seem to resist reading them! P&P is going to be done by Curtis Sittenfeld, I believe – an author I don’t know at all. I can’t for the life of me imagine how anyone could even try to update P&P – what on earth is the point? But (sighs) no doubt I shall read it anyway! I love Northanger Abbey, though it’s not got as much depth as the other books, but S&S and P&P vie for the top spot for me – P&P is more enjoyable (and contains the swoonworthy Darcy!), but S&S says more about the society of the day…

      Thanks for popping by! 🙂


  12. Fun! I didn’t know there were modernized versions. I can see that Northanger Abbey would be the one to pick if you were going to write such a thing.


    • Yes it’s by far the one that would most easily translate to modern times and McDermid did a pretty good job with it. As for the idea of modernising them in general – still makes me shudder… 😉


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