Have you ever read the premise of a book, gotten super excited, read it, and then been terribly disappointed?
That was my exact experience with Arsenic with Austen by Katherine Bolger Hyde.
My dad actually pre-ordered this book for me because he knows I love cozy mysteries and Jane Austen, and it is set in Portland and the Oregon Coast. When he told me I was really excited! Anytime a cozy can throw in literary references I am in.
The book started off slow, but I wasn’t too worried. Emily Cavanaugh is a widowed professor who teaches at Reed College in Portland. At the beginning of the book she talks aloud to her dead husband and he seems to reply to her. That’s pretty neat, maybe there’s a ghost involved! Nope, this stops happening pretty quickly and comes up just once more at the very end.
Don’t introduce me to something interesting and then do away with it! Not cool.
The premise of this book is that Emily inherits a house and a bunch of property from her deceased aunt, so she goes to the small coastal town where it’s all located to figure out what to do with it. There she runs into a man who she was in love with (for ONE summer, not even one full year, just one summer) 35 years ago. Okay, you two can meet up, reminisce, whatever. Obviously she loved her husband since she talked to him, so it’s not going to be weird.
It is weird. Even though it’s been 35 freaking years since their one season of young love/lust, Luke and Emily seem to immediately profess their still undying love to one another. Who cares that they have both been married in the interim? Those relationships didn’t matter- they always just loved each other.
Gag me with a spoon and get over it.
Speaking of spoons, one of the worst parts of this book is where Luke and Emily are eating ice cream together, along with one of Emily’s friends, and this sentence actually occurs: “They made love to each other without ever touching, just by eating ice cream.” I powered on solely because I thought maybe it could redeem itself at the end.
It did not.
The best thing about reading mystery novels is trying to figure out whodunnit. Well this book makes that strikingly easy. Is there someone who seems like a bad person? SPOILER ALERT: They are! The villains in this book are cartoonish, to the point where you expect to see them tying people up to railroad tracks, or swivelling around in chairs while stroking hairless cats.
There’s a whole (short) side plot about (MORE SPOILERS) Emily having been pregnant with Luke’s baby all those years ago. Because young love must equal babies. She miscarries, and then is never able to have children again. She’s telling Luke all about this and his response is “My poor baby.” And then he immediately proposes. WHY??
The final straw for me came at the very end of the book.
Now I have no problem with books that have religious or faithful characters. Oftentimes it can make a character seem more layered and full. This book suddenly decided at the very end to make Emily a devout Christian. She starts praying and referencing God for the remainder of the book. It’s like it was thrown in there to make a really bizarre dream that happens shortly thereafter make sense. This dream has all of the dead people in Emily’s life, including her husband, and also Luke (who becomes besties with her husband in this 2-page long dream), and in it her aunt and mother tell her to forgive everybody.
What. Those people KILLED her aunt, and an innocent housekeeper, and started a fire! Forgive? No, just send them to jail!
But Emily is all super into her dreams now, so she goes and offers to pay for legal counsel for the Big Bads. Ugh.
Oh, and why is Austen referenced in the title?
Because Hyde tried to tie in Austen plots and quotes with her own story.