Austenland Page 2

“You’re wondering if I saw it,” Carolyn said. Some voices get hard and tight with age, some rough like broken glass. Her voice was soft, sand beat by waves till it’s as fine as powdered sugar.

“Saw what?” Jane asked halfheartedly.

“He is a devil, that Mr. Darcy. But you wouldn’t hide him in a houseplant if you didn’t have a guilty conscience. That tells me you’re not idly daydreaming. You’re past thirty, not married, not dating—if your mother’s gossip and the photos in your apartment tell the truth. And it all comes down to that story. You’re obsessed.”

Jane laughed. “I am not obsessed.”

But really she was.

“Hm. You’re blushing. Tell me, what is it about that story that’s so intoxicating?”

Jane gulped down her water and glanced over her shoulder toward the ladies room, making sure her mother wasn’t returning. “Besides being witty and funny and maybe the best novel ever written, it’s also the most perfect romance in all of literature and nothing in life can ever measure up, so I spend my life limping in its shadow.”

Carolyn stared, as if waiting for more. Jane thought she’d said enough already.

“It is a lovely novel,” Carolyn said, “but you weren’t concealing a paperback in your plant. I’ve seen the movie. I know who Colin Firth is, my dear. And I think I know what you’ve put your life on hold to wait for.

“Listen, I don’t actually believe I can somehow end up married to Mr. Darcy. I just…nothing in real life feels as right as…oh, never mind, I don’t want you believing your great-niece is living in a fantasyland.”

“Are you?”

Jane forced a smile. “Warm autumn, isn’t it?”

Carolyn pressed her lips together so they were as wrinkled as her cheeks. “How’s your love life?”

“I’m on the wagon.”

“Is that so? Giving up at the age of thirty-two. Hm. May I hazard a guess?” Carolyn leaned forward, her silky voice easing between the sounds of clattering plates and too-hardy businessmen laughing. “Things aren’t working out so well, and each time the men in your life disappoint, you let Mr. Darcy in a little bit more. Perhaps you’ve come to the point where you’re so attached to the idea of that scoundrel, you won’t be satisfied with anything less.”

An olive stuck to the piece of lettuce on Jane’s fork, and when she tried to flick it off, it flew over the table and tapped a waiter on the butt. Jane scowled. Certainly, her list of ex-boyfriends was impressively pathetic. And there was that dream she’d had a few ago—she’d been dressed in a ragged wedding gown (a la Miss Havisham of Great Expectations fame), dancing alone in a dark house, waiting for Mr. Darcy to come for her. When she awoke with a sharp intake of breath, the dream had been still too raw and terrifying to laugh at. In fact, she still couldn’t.

“Maybe I am batty,” Jane said.

“I remember you, Jane.” Carolyn had pale blue eyes like denim washed too often. “I remember sitting in that gazebo with you by the lake after my sister’s, your grandmother’s, funeral. I remember you weren’t afraid to say how during the service you couldn’t help wondering what might be for lunch and was that wrong? Did that mean that you didn’t love your grandma enough? Your voice, your little girl questions took some of the sting out of my grief. You’re too honest to let yourself get duped like this.”

Jane nodded. “That day, you were wearing a lace collar. I thought it was elegant.”

“My late husband bought me that dress. It was my favorite.” Carolyn refolded her napkin, smoothing the edge with slightly shaky hands. “Harold and I had a miserable marriage. He didn’t talk much and was busy with work. I got bored and was rich enough to date delectable young men on the side. After a time, Harold fooled around, too, mostly to hurt me, I think. It wasn’t until I was too old to attract the playboys anymore that I turned to the man next to me and realized how much I loved his face. We had two blissful years together before his heart took him out. I was such a fool, Jane. I couldn’t see what was real until time had washed away everything else.” She was matter-of-fact, the pain behind the words worn out long ago.

“I’m sorry.”

“Hmph. It’s be better to be sorry for yourself. I’m old and rich, and people let me say whatever I want. So here it is. Figure out what is real for you. No use leaning on someone else’s story all your life. You know, that book did Austen herself no good— died a spinster.”

“I know.” The thought had haunted Jane many times, and it was a favorite weapon of anti-Austen enthusiasts.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with spinsters,” Carolyn said, patting the fragile folds in her neck.

“Of course not. Spinster is just an archaic term for ‘career-minded.’”

“Listen, sweetie, my story’s told. I’ve had my dancing days, and I’m facing my own The End. But sky and stars know how your story will turn out. So go make your happily-ever-after happen.” Her voice had a Little League coach enthusiasm. It was sweetly patronizing. Time to change the subject. Very nonchalantly.

“Why don’t you tell me about your childhood, Aunt Carolyn?”

Carolyn laughed, soft as room-temperature butter. “Tell you about my childhood, and just in the nick of time. Well, don’t mind if I do. I was a limper from the time I could walk. Our folks were poor and your grandma and I shared a bed that leaned to one side, though I can’t be sure if that bed was the cause…”

When Shirley returned from the restroom, Carolyn was quoting the price of milk when she was a child, and Shirley gave her daughter an approving smile. Thanks be she hadn’t overheard the batty-great-niece part of the conversation. Her mother was practical from her robust eyeglass frames to her thick-heeled shoes, and no daughter of hers would dally about in fantasyland.

And Jane was eager to agree. Seriously, a thirty-something woman shouldn’t be daydreaming about a fictional character in a two-hundred-year-old world to the point where it interfered with her very real and much more important life and relationships. Of course she shouldn’t.

Jane crunched down on a piece of arugula.

6 months ago

GREAT-AUNT CAROLYN PASSED AWAY. “And you’re in the will, dear!” her mother said, calling from Vermont. “Apparently our last-minute lunch did the trick. The lawyer will be in touch. Call me the moment you learn the amount!”

Prev Next