April 2006

Sarah Vance

fiction

The Brontė Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire and Good PR by Jennifer Vandever

The Brontë Project tells the story of Sara Frost, an academic in her mid-twenties who has prematurely become a little too comfortable -- both in her professional and personal life. On the staff of a university in New York City, and engaged to marry her college boyfriend, Paul, Sara seems very comfortable having the rest of her life completely mapped out for her. Until Claire Vigel makes her dramatic appearance in Sara’s life, that is. Claire is what loosely passes for an academic as she studies the cult of all things Princess Diana. Sara is overwhelmed by Claire’s glamour and drama. And if Claire’s arrival doesn’t shake Sara out of her comfort zone, Paul announces almost out of the blue that he needs time and space to think over their relationship and leaves for a glamorous fellowship in Paris. Suddenly, Sara’s comfortable life is disturbingly uncomfortable.

The premise of The Brontë Project about a young woman who suddenly finds herself exploring the kind of life that she never expected herself to have engages the reader the moment she cuts off her hair and begins to make choices for a different life. Sara stops teaching and begins writing a screenplay -- a romantic comedy based on the short and very unhappy life of Charlotte Brontë -- that is dubbed the “Brontë Project” by the Hollywood producer who has attached himself to it, and to Sara. I must confess the complete title of this book, The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire and Good PR, really intrigued me from the start. I have been an admirer of the Brontë’s Gothic Romance sensibilities ever since the first time I read Jane Eyre when I was thirteen. The book jacket of The Brontë Project also led me to believe that the story was going to be a modern day literary mystery much like A.S. Byatt’s Possession -- a book that has long had a position of honor on my book shelves as I think of it as a guilty pleasure that I like to re-read whenever it rains in Los Angeles.

As a novel, The Brontë Project shows some promise, but it never provides a completely satisfactory payoff for the reader. The characters are smart and their dialogue is real and the choices they make, both right and wrong, seem truly honest. There are also some unique and engaging subplots introduced throughout The Brontë Project, but the plot doesn’t follow the most interesting storylines to their inevitable conclusions. The author never manages to weave the element of Charlotte Brontë -- the writer, the screenplay or the mysterious letter -- into the story. And the ambiguous and unsatisfying ending only serves to remind the reader that getting to the ending wasn’t completely enjoyable either.

The Brontë Project starts with a bang as Sara is knocked out of her hum-drum existence by some extraordinary events -- but the story quickly loses focus and the most intriguing plot point -- the discovery of a forgotten Brontë letter that may be in the possession of an eccentric elderly woman on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, is kicked under the carpet. Instead, the story takes a wrong turn when it shifts from New York City to Los Angeles, where Sara becomes immersed in the vapid, superficial, money-focused Hollywood lifestyle. The author paints a vivid portrait of this culture. And for those of us who live in Los Angeles, the depiction of the Hollywood lifestyle in this book is so incredibly honest -- it’s almost not funny.

As a main character Sara is completely empathetic. As the story begins she is passive, but she slowly begins to make interesting choices. Unfortunately, she is completely overshadowed by Claire. Claire is more layered and much more dynamic character than Sara, and therefore intriguing. And honestly, wouldn’t be intrigued by a woman who has made an academic career out of the study of Princess Diana?

While The Brontë Project isn’t a completely engaging read, it should be noted that its author, Jennifer Vandever, is a writer to watch. She has the ability to write contemporary fiction with a young single female protagonist on the quest for love and life that is much smarter and wiser than the sugary-sweet cotton candy prose that forms most contemporary “Chick Lit.” Vandever creates real characters -- and real situations -- all she needs is a good story to tell -- and then let her characters do the rest.

The Brontë Project by Jennifer Vandever
Shaye Areheart Books
ISBN: 0307236919
288 Pages