Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid: A review

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is another of the books in the Austen Project, modern authors retelling the Austen classics. This one even has the same name as the original.

Val McDermid is a successful author of crime thrillers, none of which I have read. She accepted the challenge of updating Northanger Abbey and chose to make the heroine, Catherine Morland, into a Twilight-loving, vampire-obsessed teenager. Since I'm not a big fan of Twilight or vampires in general - although I quite like Dracula - that artistic choice made it very hard for me to like Cat, as she is called in the book. She seemed utterly shallow and without substance, and since the book is all about her, that left the plot feeling quite flimsy and frivolous for me.

So, we have Cat Morland, sheltered, homeschooled daughter of a vicar and his wife from the little village of Piddle Valley in Dorset. It is a happy, loving family with four children, a brother older than Cat and two sisters who are younger. The family has quite straitened financial circumstances and there's not much chance for travel, so it is very exciting for Cat when their childless neighbors, the Allens, invite her to travel with them to Edinburgh for the summer Fringe Festival.

When they arrive in Edinburgh, Cat's world explodes with possibilities. She essentially takes the city by storm. She meets Bella Thorne who, almost instantly, becomes her BFF. Then she finds that Bella has her cap set for Cat's brother, James, who is a school friend of her brother, and she is equally determined that Cat will be paired with that odious brother, Johnny.

Soon, Cat also meets handsome Henry Tilney at a dance and loses her heart to him, and she also meets his sister Eleanor, who invites her to come and visit them at their family home, Northanger Abbey. Cat looks at online pictures of Northanger Abbey and is entranced by the idea of it because it looks like a place where vampires might dwell. Arriving at the Abbey, she imagines that the Tilneys are a family of vampires, but the thought doesn't scare her; it only excites her.

McDermid actually follows the original plot pretty closely, just changing carriages to cars and letters on paper to emails and texts and girls obsessed with The Mysteries of Udolpho to girls obsessed with Twilight and Herbridean Harpies. She makes a stab at updating the language of the teenagers, but that fell flat for me. Words like "totes" or "amazeballs" - I mean, are those even words? And do teenagers really talk like that? I don't have much opportunity to interact with teenagers these days, so perhaps I'm not the best judge...

I really don't have the heart to summarize the entire plot here. There was no one in the story that I felt a connection with, and so even though the book was fairly short, reading it felt like a bit of a slog. I found myself missing the witty dialogue and beautiful language of the original.

In fact, I think this book would probably be enjoyed more by someone who has never read the original and so has nothing with which to compare it. I can imagine that it might appeal to the readers of Twilight, for example, and if it could make those readers sufficiently curious about the writings of Austen to pick up the original and read it, that would be the best possible outcome. 

(Here's a link to my Goodreads review of the original.)

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  1. Glad you warned me about this one, Dorothy. Definitely not my cup of tea. P.x

    1. Unless you enjoy reading about very silly teenagers, it's probably best to avoid it!

  2. I enjoyed your review more than you probably enjoyed the book. :-)
    Totes and amazeballs are words, though I don't know if teenagers use them or if they do, they do so with the same meaning.

    1. Not words that I would ever use, but then I'm pretty much a stick-in-the-mud. I'm more at home with Austen's language.

  3. I am a rather tepid Austen fan. But Northanger Abbey is the one I like best! I can kind of see why she made the choices she did because I have read that Austen was making fun of women who get the vapors over mystery novels. But it sounds like she didn't quite pull it off. I think amazeballs is currently more used by 20-somethings than teens, but I live in America. BTW, I saw the adaptation of Emma last night, 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow. It was excellent. I tried twice to read Emma but could. not. Now I don't have to!

    1. Northanger Abbey was among my favorites of Austen's books, along with Sense and Sensibility and, of course, Pride and Prejudice. I do think McDermid hewed closely to Austen's plot and choosing Twilight and vampires as the modern teenagers' obsession was not out of line - but I just could not love the effort.


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