REVIEW: The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
In which experienced West End actress Freddy Carlton takes on an Austen-inspired play, a scandal at a country estate, an enthusiastic search for a passion outside of acting…and the (some people might say icy*) heart of London’s most feared theater critic.
*if those people were being nice
Freddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.
She can’t take her eyes off him.
Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.
Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.
As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.
Dear Ms. Parker,
I was delighted to see another novel of yours on the horizon and chuffed to get my hands on it early. In a teensy bit of a change, it’s (mainly) not set in London nor in a West End play. Instead there’s a fun mash-up of Austen, murder mystery and audience participation crossed with feuding families and long held secrets all taking place at a stately home. Let’s just hope the house doesn’t fall down around their ears until the “LIVE” sign goes off.
Freddy (Frederica) Carlton comes from English acting royalty. The Carltons have been stars of the stage for generations and she’s carrying on the family tradition. Her latest role is in a dramatic play, an early one that her grandmother wrote before penning “The Velvet Room” – that hands down, towering addition to British theater. Of course Freddy would fluff a line and ad hoc an anachronistic replacement on press night. She then gets to unintentionally listen in as the bastard critic who has ripped her performances before (okay, Freddy does acknowledge that J. Ford-Griffin does usually manage to nail what is wrong with a production) hones in on her mistake. But our Freddy keeps her public cool and humorously zings him back.
Meanwhile Griff’s trying to keep his home in one piece and pay off the bills that threaten to force his family from where they’ve lived for 400 years. It’s crumbling but it’s home. If he feels that the weight of the world is on him alone it’s because he is usually the one snatching them from the jaws of bankruptcy which his financially feckless parents and baby brother only run towards. When Charlie appears with yet another plan which he no-doubt thinks will save them but will probably only sink them deeper, Griff holds on to his patience by a thread.
Except, this one might keep the wolves at bay for another year or two. That’s if it comes off. The estate will host a live performance of an “audience chooses the ending” of a combo of Austen’s greatest characters which will be held in a boutique theater on site. Before Griff knows it, a gaggle of theater and film stars are wandering around his house including Freddy Carlton whose grandmother had a torrid affair with Griff’s grandfather there. But wait! There’s more! Griff and Freddy’s father are in a battle to bring that story to film. Plus there’s cast member clashes galore threatening to bring the entire endeavor crashing down.
As Freddy and Griff discover and explore an unexpected relationship, they also dig into the past and just might uncover a long held secret that could set the London theater world on fire. And potentially destroy what looks like might be a love for the ages.
This book manages to combine a book with strong characters and a complex plot. Writing it must have been like juggling twelve balls. There are intricate layers, there are cogs within wheels within machines. The tension is slowly increased, then eased, then ratcheted up, then more elements are added until finally everything comes together – or comes out, as the case may be.
There is humor, there is angst, there is snarling among the cast members one of whom I’d cheerfully push into a wood chipper. There is heartache and betrayal and personal growth. There are also periods where despite all of the above, things just seemed to drift around a little and I had to refocus my interest.
The romance took a different direction than I’d expected which I liked. The dynamic between Freddy and Griff remains balanced and their feelings roared straight into “holy shit, is this love?” territory though they both know enough to wait to be sure that this isn’t just an itch or merely close proximity. Freddy’s sister has yo-yo’d back and forth into a disastrous relationship enough for Freddy to know she needs to be searching for a deeper connection, the kind of “I’ve got your back” unquestioning support beyond just smoking sex. The type of person whom you let see the real you that you rarely show to anyone. Griff and Freddy are sure they’ve got that. Until a last minute conflict that felt a little bit staged.
Then all the conflict chickens came home to roost and it appeared to be everything and the kitchen sink. What could go wrong did and usually in public. Murphy’s Law in spectacular action. Still I was impressed by the way that everything gets brought together and the juggling balls are skillfully caught and the whole holds together. It’s a little fairy tale happy and one character close to Freddy’s heart doesn’t catch nearly as much grief as he should while another who is deserving of a knife attack in the shower appears to get off scot free. In the end, I liked it but there were some bland patches and a few rough spots. B-