MARY B, by Katherine J. Chen. Random House, 322 pp., $27.
Do other readers, now and then, spend a fleeting moment feeling anxious for Lydia Wickham? The last we see of her she is married to a spendthrift rake; her eldest sister, Jane Bingley, will receive her, you feel sure, but it would be awkward for everyone involved if she and Wickham were to visit Pemberley. How much better had she married someone loving and stable, a partner to grow into!
If all of that is incomprehensible to you, then you are not one of the millions of people devoted to “Pride and Prejudice,” whether on page or screen. If, though, you nodded along, you are the prime target for “Mary B,” a charming and smart if uneven debut by Katherine J. Chen, about another of the five sisters at the heart of Jane Austen’s unsurpassable comedy of manners.
Mary is the middle Bennet sister. In “Pride and Prejudice,” her role is to embarrass her elder sisters in front of Bingley and Darcy with her self-serious attempts at the piano, while serving as an object of sport for her younger ones, Kitty and Lydia, as they fling themselves at various army officers. Chen, to her credit, realizes that Mary is thus, given her lack of any real interiority, highly malleable.
In “Mary B,” she narrates herself into being. Her defining trait is her lack of beauty. “I’d realized early on in life that most people did not look at me for any longer than they needed to,” she says. But her inner life, as Chen imagines it, is exceedingly rich — a bit prim at the outset but evolving rapidly as she gains experience. Eventually she becomes what might seem inconceivable, given her origins: a lover, multiple times. The book is addressed, in its fashion, “To anyone who has ever doubted that the sour little creature sitting on the sidelines of the ball isn’t capable of the same purity of love as her two esteemed sisters.”
"Mary B" is a book that aims first to illuminate what it’s like to be unbeautiful, overlooked, and yet to feel love as passionately as the beautiful do. But it also hopes to refract the characters we’re sure we know so intimately from “Pride and Prejudice.” (The angelic Georgiana Darcy, for example, comes off pretty badly.) In its opening chapters, it combines these aims in the figure of Mr. Collins, whom readers will remember as Lizzie Bennet’s risible early suitor, a minor clergyman obsessed with his benefactress, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
In fact, his strongest connection at Longbourn, Chen shrewdly hazards, might easily have been with the intellectual Mary, and in the book’s best passage Mr. Collins provides his excruciating back story, which goes a long way toward explaining his obsequious nature — and shortly later, provides Mary’s first kiss.
In the book’s later stages, Mary goes to Pemberley, and there it is first the amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam — “ugly little thing, aren’t you?” he greets her — and later the daunting Darcy himself whose ambiguous but potentially amorous attentions she attracts.
“Mary B” is imperfect. There’s a strong hint of fan fiction to Mary’s fairly rapid trek toward a second and a third love, including a riotously joyful initiation into her sexuality. Chen is also an erratic ventriloquist. Sometimes she finds a true Austenian pitch — Mr. Collins describes Rosings Park “to the minutest detail, so as to leave nothing, not even a single bush or daisy, to the autonomy of the imagination” — but elsewhere she misses it badly.
More complicated, her readings of Austen’s characters can be weak. She deepens Mary at the expense of Lizzie, for instance, who turns vain and boring, buying “items she would most certainly have ridiculed” before her marriage. Darcy becomes unctuous in a way impossible to reconcile with what we know of him. And Chen positively annihilates poor Charlotte Lucas, to doubtful ends — Charlotte being one of the most painful, sympathetic and loveliest characters in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Yet for all that, Mary’s narration is a heedless downhill pleasure — plush, ironic and illuminating. And indeed, it’s a compliment to say that “Mary B” fails its model in fresh, readable ways. “Pride and Prejudice” survives the rainbow of its imitators and interpreters: an impossible masterpiece, at once as solid as a hundred-year old oak and as sensitive as such a tree’s fluttering outermost leaves. To pay it even fair homage, as Chen does with Mary’s story, is a triumph, since nobody could actually match Jane Austen. That is — or should be — a truth universally acknowledged.