Review: The California Dashwoods by Lisa Henry

AustenDashwoodRating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


Elliot has always been the responsible one. When his artist father and free-spirited mother whisked the children away to spend a day at the beach, it was Elliot who remembered the umbrella in case it rained. While his parents watered the garden with a silver heirloom teapot, it was Elliot who worried about whether bills got paid. And when his fathered died, it was Elliot who held his family together. His mother and two younger sisters were granted the luxury of their grief and pain while Elliot had to deal with the hospital, the funeral home, and with his half brother and the family trust that now owns their childhood home and everything in it. Henry Dashwood was a passionate man who threw away his career to be an artist, who threw away his first wife (and his first son) for the au pair. Abby was the love of his life and he was devoted their three children. His relatives allowed him and his new family to live in the ancestral Dashwood house on a small stipend, but with Henry’s death, his gold-digger wife and her children are finally going to be ousted along with the scandal they brought with them.

Meeting Ned is a balm. Ned gives Elliott a moment to grieve, a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on, and a pair of lips to kiss. One kiss leads to another, and another, until their momentary indiscretion is discovered by Francesca, Ned’s sister and John’s wife. Needless to say, she isn’t happy to see Abby’s son with her brother, and it ends with Elliot and his family leaving sooner rather than later to California where Abby’s brother offers them a place to start over. All they have is each other. It’s all they need.

But someone needs to figure out how four people are going to live in a two bedroom apartment. Someone needs to figure out when bills are getting paid and how to put food on the table, and that someone is Elliot. He still holds a lingering dream of Ned, of what they had — what they almost had. When Ned shows up again, looking at the prospect of developing some land nearby, Elliot can’t help but think, dream, for a moment that Ned might be there for him. But real life and romance novels don’t have much in common in Elliot’s world. Ned makes it clear he isn’t there for Elliot and so Elliot has his heart, a small and fragile thing, broken.

While Elliot grieves anew, his sister is falling quite head over heels in love with a flashy young man named Jack who, after a brief summer romance, has to head back to Boston. When an old friend gives Elliot and Marianne a chance to return to New York, a final chance to show their father’s art, they both leap at it. Marianne to see Jack again, and for Elliot, a chance to get some badly needed money from selling his father’s paintings. There the two of them are forced to come face to face with the truth about the men they loved and the reality that not all stories have happy endings.

Love and the betrayal of love are themes often found in Jane Austen’s work, and this — a new take on Sense and Sensibility — is a wonderful exploration of that. In this story, Henry didn’t just take a second wife, he abandoned his first wife and his first son. That pain stands between John and his father’s other family, explaining the distance and the cruelty of simply casting them out without assistance. Francesca, too, has reasons for her dislike of the family beyond just being greedy for the estate. She sees the pain John feels at a father who never loved him. Henry turned away from John, his own son, to fall in love with the au pair and the children he had by her. And then to see Elliot with her own brother only cements her idea of Elliot as someone who would do anything to hold on to the house, someone who would use her brother as a tool or weapon against her and her husband. Even though she has very few scenes, barely more than John, I appreciated this take on the Francesca and John. It gave them depth and humanity and a reason behind their cold hostility.

Elliot and Marianne have lengthy talks about love, both the first flush of it and the pain of its absence, both in dealing with the loss of their father and dealing with their own personal lives. Marianne grabs love with both hands and hopes for the best; Elliot is cautious, watchful — not that he’s scared of love, but he wants a chance to see it, examine it, and think about it before he allows himself to believe in it. Some of these introspective passages have the best writing in the story:

Elliott hadn’t known how tightly his unformed hopes had wound themselves around him until they threatened to choke him. He hadn’t realized how much he’d been looking forward to seeing Ned Ferrars again—A friend? Something more?—until Ned had come and gone and left an emptiness behind in Elliott. An absence not of the man himself, but of the expectation that Elliott had unknowingly attached to him.

Elliot was raised by two loving, free-thinking, and free-spirited parents. His life was one of constant parties, constant guests, constant adventures, and chaos. Would they eat dinner with candles because it was romantic, or because the electric bill hadn’t been paid? There was money from the trust, so his parents never worried. Unlike Austen’s Elinore, Elliot isn’t resigned and good and patient. He’s just a tightrope walker, balancing between other people’s dreams. Or, as he puts it himself:

He sometimes felt like he was the kid born in the circus who dreamed of running away to be an accountant.

Henry shows a true love of the source inspiration and made Ausen’s sometimes thin and simple characters into three-dimensional people. Henry also isn’t afraid to add humor to the story and, while staying faithful to the plot of Sense and Sensibility, truly makes this her own book with her own characters. This Elliot isn’t passive, he’s angry. When faced with the why behind Ned’s rebuff he doesn’t wilt and mourn. He keeps going with his life. He’s not a victim, but he is hurt. The loss of his father and the healing he and his family still have to do are woven through the scenes, and I loved how the healing Elliot is doing spreads out even to John and Francesca.

No character in this book is an afterthought. Each one is treated with care and respect and, in several cases, is treated better in this story than the original. I loved the evocative, poetic writing that showed us Elliot’s pain and humanity. The pacing is good and I tore through this book in a single sitting. I think this take on Sense and Sensibility does the source material proud. If you’re a fan of Austen, if you’re a fan of good writing and sweet, poignant stories and happy endings, I urge you to give this book a try.

elizabeth sig

Leave a Comment

*

%d bloggers like this: