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Young scholar Sara Frost’s unsuccessful search for the lost love letters of Charlotte Brontë hasn’t won her any favors at her university, particularly now that the glamorous and self-promoting Princess Diana expert, Claire Vigee, has introduced her media-savvy exploits to the staid halls of academia. But it’s not until Sara’s fiancé suddenly leaves her that she begins ...
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Young scholar Sara Frost’s unsuccessful search for the lost love letters of Charlotte Brontë hasn’t won her any favors at her university, particularly now that the glamorous and self-promoting Princess Diana expert, Claire Vigee, has introduced her media-savvy exploits to the staid halls of academia. But it’s not until Sara’s fiancé suddenly leaves her that she begins to question her life’s vocation.
Sara’s jolt brings her to an unusual new world, one populated by a cheerfully amoral Frenchman, a pair of New York eccentrics who pretend to live in the nineteenth century, a lapsed methadone addict and screenwriter, and a Hollywood producer who mistakenly assumes that the short, sad life of Charlotte Brontë has the makings of the next “feel good” movie blockbuster.
The Brontë Project is an irreverent and comic look at love, loss, literature, and pop culture, and a guide to reconciling the mythology of romance with the reality of modern love.
A Redbook Magazine Book Club Pick
Look for the reader’s group guide at the back of this book.
It is painful to be dependent on the small stimulus letters give.--Charlotte Bronte, to Ellen Nussey, 1850
Fate affords some lovers only one opportunity to meet. Others it allows endless opportunities, so that their coupling seems more like the work of fate's fair-haired cousin, serendipity. Whatever the circumstances, any number of preconditions must gather around this fortuitous event. In the case of Sara and Paul it was the combination of a graduate seminar on the modern British novel, a boring holiday party, Anglophilia in general, and Paul's vague resemblance to a young Laurence Olivier in particular. They had so capitalized on their good fortune that six years after the fact they stood side by side, surveying the crowd, both eyeing the door and drinking a cheap merlot from plastic cups.
Even in the most generous accounting, fate has a lot to answer for. Romeo and Juliet met on a Sunday and were dead by Thursday. This was a fact Sara had picked up at an academic seminar, "Shakespeare's Love and Time: Counting Our Days"-something like that-wedged between lectures on Ophelia's eating disorders and Macbeth's compulsive gambling. Someone had actually taken it upon himself to count the days in that play, a ludicrous venture Sara had thought at the time. But it was an instructive fact, one that stayed with her. This was the true lesson of Romeo and Juliet: The course of destiny was hard and swift. That stranger you met on Sunday could be the corpse of your true love draped artfully over your own cadaver on Thursday. You just never knew.
Sara remembered this fact as she watched Paul chatting joylessly with the Vice Dean, the cheap merlot coating the back of her throat like syrup. The wine was actually very expensive, she thought. Not that the wine was any good, but it's a particular brand of wine that a particular brand of people will stand around in bright rooms drinking out of plastic cups, people who must believe this activity will bring them some advantage. In terms of lost time, dignity, and energy, the wine actually came at a very steep price. Sara had time to think of this as she set down her cup and approached the cheese platter, realizing the same theory applied to cheese.
"The wine's actually pretty expensive, if you think about it," Sara whispered to Paul. They were in need of the quiet intimacy of a shared joke.
"Sorry, what?" Paul asked, distracted.
"The wine. It's expensive. If you factor in the lost time and . . . dignity . . ." Sara said, faltering. It was less amusing out loud and Paul gave her the indulgent smile of a joke unrealized.
"Then let's go," Paul said.
It happened every year in late August, the old faculty welcoming the new. It seemed a strange custom to celebrate newness by offering up the same old: bad wine, bad cheese, new teachers, welcome. Paul was ready to leave and find a proper drink elsewhere. He'd learned there wasn't much advantage to be found here while Sara still hadn't, and it was creating a rift. Paul didn't need these events like Sara did. He'd already published-at twenty-seven, no less-and wrote about sexy topics like language and power that attracted grants and the attention of Vice Deans.
Sara was not so lucky in her research, which concerned letters and, more specifically, lost letters. She was looking for Bronte letters. The Brontes were famously avid correspondents and scrupulous destroyers of their own work. Such was the Victorian horror of private revelation that few of these personal missives survived. The bulk of her research consisted of dead-end correspondences with cranky old ladies in Belgium and England who may or may not have lost Bronte letters languishing in their attics. They had gotten to be an occupational hazard, these lonely widows who would tease out Sara's interest in their forgotten archives. They would tell her of their cat's indigestion, their lost pension checks, visits to the doctor, cataloging in minute detail their various physical complaints. They would describe the boorishness of neighbors, the ingratitude of children, the sad, failing light on their kitchen's windowsill before getting down to Sara's real purpose in writing them. Invariably the investigations ended in disappointment.
Sara would probably never find an authentic letter, and she had to admit during quieter moments that perhaps this search was simply an attempt to delay the inevitable: writing her thesis. There was a long list of missing Bronte letters and writings, but by now most people assumed they'd been destroyed, and who really cared? Not Sara's thesis adviser.
"D'you think there might've been some sexual abuse in there?" her adviser once asked hopefully.
"Good God, no," Sara replied.
"Oh, well, can't hurt to look, can it?" the adviser suggested merrily.
With most English Ph.D. candidates scrambling for the last crumbs of employment, Sara knew she was poorly situated. For the time being, the department would plug her into Lit. 101 courses, sopping up the excess of unlettered freshmen. Her research grant, which provided the bulk of her living expenses, was due for renewal soon and she was becoming keenly aware that unless she did something vaguely fashionable, something vaguely sexy as Paul had, her days were numbered.
"Let's go," Paul whispered again.
"We're celebrating newness," Sara reminded.
"Oh, right," Paul sighed.
Something always compelled her to believe that five more minutes would rectify a brief academic career distinguished mostly by its silence. Even this pathetic celebration of newness gave her hope. She knew Paul was mostly there for her benefit this year and he was eager to leave at the first opportunity. Then there was a collective rustling in the room. Sara looked up to see that Claire Vigee, the bestselling Princess Diana scholar and the faculty's most dazzling new addition, had arrived.
"Excuse me, everyone," Claire began.
The crowd turned to face Claire, who was dressed like a cross between Rita Hayworth and a seventeenth-century courtesan and was flanked by two very buff black men dressed entirely in leather. This was new.
"These are Derek and Lester, my bodyguards," Claire announced in a lilting accent that sounded to Sara like an indefinable mix of French, British, and pretentiousness. "There have been some death threats. Anyway, they're passing out directions to the launch party tonight for my new book, which you probably all know about. I'm afraid I have to be off, but I just want you all to know how much I look forward to teaching here this year and learning from all of you and all that. Thanks."
Something about the way Claire had thanked them provoked the crowd to give her a round of applause, as though they had just given her an award. The book party was being sponsored by the journal Claire edited, Labia, and Sara overheard Ed Grimes, the drunken medievalist, snicker triumphantly about never turning down an invitation from "labia" as bodyguard Derek thrust an invitation into her hands. General merriment erupted as the crowd that had lowered its sights to Free Bad Wine learned that it was now being treated to an Open Bar. Sara was about to toss her invitation away when she caught Paul's eye and realized that, of course, they were going.
Sara already knew Claire and knew she hated her. She had mistakenly sat on a panel Claire conducted a couple of years ago. Mistakenly, because Sara had written an article about the Brontes an editor had unfortunately titled "Sister Power," and for a full year after that, Sara had been invited to speak at symposia of all kind to discuss her role at the forefront of the gender wars. Sara had no desire to be at the forefront of any war, much less one so indeterminate, but she had accepted Claire's invitation before realizing she'd been mistakenly dubbed a campus firebrand. Modern readings of the classics were generally pretty indulgent affairs, Sara thought. She realized her attitude was unfashionable, but what could she do? She sat on Claire's panel (to decline after accepting would have aroused speculation) in stony silence. After an hour of tepid debate among the other panelists about quilting and women murderers, Claire turned to Sara and asked if she was giving a demonstration of "Victorian feminine silence." Sara mumbled something incoherent about corsets and wished she were dead. Or Claire were dead.
Luckily, a woman on the panel, Toi from Syracuse, who'd been spoiling for a fight ever since Claire dismissed her life's work as "that whole Otherness thing," redirected the debate toward her sphere of inquiry: "It's always about some white lady gettin' laid-that's all those books are. Why doesn't she step aside and let some of her Latina and African-American sisters get some of the action?" The audience cheered. Sara thought perhaps she should point out that in the "gettin' laid" category the Brontes were notable failures with the exception of Charlotte, who possibly got some action during her six-month marriage before dropping dead at thirty-eight. But then perhaps she'd misunderstood Toi's point.
But that was two years ago. Sara was sure Claire wouldn't remember her.
"The silent Victorian! I wondered what darkened corner you'd receded into!" And in fact Sara did look around for a darkened corner, but she could feel Paul tugging her toward Claire.
"I'm so glad people from the department are coming. Did you see my bodyguards? They're very sexy but not very attentive." Claire gestured toward Lester and Derek, who were drunkenly flirting with each other in the far corner.
"I'm telling everyone to get bodyguards these days. Even if you don't need them, which I do, they make one feel, how can I say, so valuable?"
Sara tried to exchange a look of disbelief with Paul, who was staring at Claire, disturbingly entranced.
Claire inexplicably flicked the edge of her bustier with her thumb before taking Paul's hand.
"Of course you are, I know. You do Orwell and she does Bronte. It must be reassuring to have professional interests that are so conventionally gendered. Some mornings I wake up and say, Claire, just one day without sexual ambiguity, please, because living with ambiguity is actually very difficult, it requires a very complex mind like mine, which I know scares people, but then most of my friends are very famous and they don't mind. Excuse me."
Claire waved at someone across the room and ran to embrace her. Or him.
"What a freak," Sara muttered under her breath.
"Oh, I don't know," Paul said, gesturing to the bartender for a drink. Sara took a deep, stabilizing breath. Claire was like the anti-Sara: Where Sara was slim-hipped, small-breasted, and quiet, Claire was shapely and loud. Where Sara had straight dark hair, Claire had a shock of coppery red curls. Sara favored the practical and the classic in clothing and colors that, as her mother liked to point out, occurred naturally in bruises-blacks, grays, and blues-while Claire went for the blatantly trendy and expensive. On Claire even black looked red.
She was everything Sara was not, so Paul's passing interest in her bothered Sara. But she and Paul matched, she reassured herself. Hadn't they simultaneously thrown out the bulk of thrift-store clothing that comprised their early-twentysomething wardrobes and jointly acquired tailored, professional clothes, with only the random thrift-store purchase to maintain their prior claim to hipness? Paul would look ridiculous standing next to Claire, doubtless part of her appeal, Sara figured. His closet now bulged with nice suits and sweaters, but an accusation of conventionality could still cut him to the core.
"She called us conventionally gendered," Sara reminded him.
"She called me searingly nihilistic," said Meredith, who joined them. Meredith taught poetry.
"Well, you are," Paul replied.
Meredith was developing a reputation for her ability to recover painful childhood memories and relate them in verse that was invariably described by reviewers as stark, scathing, or searing. Less charitable members of the faculty enjoyed the game of speculating as to what new tragedy Meredith would recall for a sequel.
"Screw you, Paul," Meredith said, waving off one of the toga-clad waitresses.
"Is this a theme party?" Paul asked.
"You're being served a fig tart by a Roman slave-what do you think?"
"You're in a good mood, Meredith," Paul said. Meredith smiled and indicated to the bartender another round, whispering, "This turns into a cash bar in twenty minutes-we better hurry up and get ripped." A woman in a sleek black suit grabbed Meredith's shoulder.
"There you are. There's a promising young filmmaker you might want to meet over there next to the column."
"Doric or Ionic?" Paul asked the young woman. She stared at him, uncomprehending, then ran a hand down the front of her suit.
"This is Maura, Claire's publicist's assistant," Meredith intoned with mock interest. "Paul's also an author." This information produced a calming effect on Maura.
"Where have you published?" she asked.
"Mostly in Hungary and the back of men's magazines."
Maura frowned slightly.
"Right now I'm editing The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Complete Idiot's Guide," Paul added.
Maura brightened. "I love those books! I learned all about mutual funds. You'll have to let me know when it comes out. What about you?" Maura wheeled around to Sara.
"I'm working on my thesis," Sara said, carefully avoiding anything that might provoke interest.
"The Bronte sisters."
Maura thought, cross-referencing with speed-dial celerity. "You know, I love all that old Motown stuff." She noticed a young man in baggy trousers and tiny eyeglasses. "That's the one," she told Meredith.<
Excerpted from The Bront? Project by Jennifer Vandever Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
An irreverent and comic look at life, loss, and literature, The Brontë Project reveals what happens when the mythology of romance clashes with the reality of modern love.
Sara Frost's long and unsuccessful search for the love letters of Charlotte Brontë hasn't won her much support at the university where she teaches, particularly now that a glamorous and self-promoting scholar--who specializes in the study of Diana, Princess of Wales--has joined Sara's department and nakedly seeks the spotlight at every opportunity. But it is not until Sara's fiancé Paul suddenly leaves her that Sara begins to question everything from her choices in love to her life's work. Sara is thrust into an strange and exciting new world, where she encounters a cheerfully amoral Frenchman, a pair of New York eccentrics who seem stuck in the nineteenth century, and a Hollywood producer who thinks that the short, sad life of Charlotte Brontë has all the makings of the next "feel good" movie blockbuster. Along the way, Sarah discovers that the life and writings of Charlotte Brontë may have taught her more than she ever dreamed about the virtues of being a romantic with the heart of a pragmatist.
This guide is designed to help you direct your reading group's discussion of Jennifer Vandever's intelligent and wickedly funny first novel, The Brontë Project.
1. Before reading The Brontë Project, had you read any of the works of the Brontë sisters? Do any of The Brontë Project's characters or themes remind you of those found in the Brontës' books?
2. "Saraalready knew Claire and knew she hated her" (page 8). What was your initial opinion of Claire? Did it change as you learned more about her?
3. In addition to Claire, The Brontë Project is filled with memorable and eccentric characters: magenta blue, the budding feminist-cum-shock artist; Burke and Ives, stuck in the nineteenth century; Nykki, the strung-out screenwriter. Which characters were your favorites? Why did you like them?
4. By focusing her academic career on the famously elusive letters of the Brontës and obsessively pursuing something she might never obtain, does Sara seem to have set herself up for failure? Why or why not? Are there other areas of Sara's life where she is searching for something she may never find?
5. Did you expect Sara and Paul to break up, especially for the specific reasons why they parted? Why or why not?
6. Sara observes of the Brontë sisters (page 5): "Charlotte Brontë in particular was a famously avid correspondent and her husband a scrupulous destroyer of her letters, such was his Victorian horror of private revelation." Discuss "the horror of private revelation" in terms of Sara--what was she afraid of revealing?
7. How does the story of Princess Diana fit in with that of the Brontë sisters? With that of Sara? Is Diana a figure many women can relate to? How?
8. Throughout the book, Sara gradually begins to see through Claire's exterior and discovers that they might have something in common. For example, she wonders if "maybe Claire was right" to promote self-love and self-assurance (page 51). Have Claire and Sara found common ground by the end of the novel, and, if so, what is it? Were you surprised by their reconciliation? How easy or difficult is it for one to identify with a rival?
9. At the beginning of the "In the World" chapter (page 58), this quote from Charlotte Brontë to her aunt Elizabeth Branwell appears: "Who ever rose in the world without ambition?" Do you agree with this sentiment? Why or why not? Do you think Sara lacked ambition, and did that impede her in some way?
10. Why does Sara adopt the formal moniker of "Mr. Emmons" when she refers to Byrne?
11. While walking with Denis in Central Park, Sara is reminded of a friend whose marriage had been arranged for him, and her incredulousness that he would be happy in a marriage with no love. "You grow to love each other," the friend explained (page 148). Do you think Sara is trying to convince herself that she could learn to love Denis? What about the sentiment itself--do you agree that love is something that happens gradually over time, that doesn't need to exist at the beginning of a relationship?
12. "People could look down their noses and pretend to be unaffected by the wildly inaccurate Hollywood gloss version of 'real events,' but it was the visual that stuck. Sara sensed this much was true if only because she was now sitting in a hotel room struggling to forget that Paul looked uncannily like a young Laurence Olivier in the film version of Wuthering Heights and that losing him felt like the definitive tragedy of her life. But what had she lost? The visual that so neatly corresponded with the romantic myth? Or the man who inhabited it?" (pages 161--162) What do you think the answer to Sara's question is?
13. In "Dread to Feel," Sara goes to Florence, Italy, and sleeps in "the bed of the dreams" Ives and Burke had described to her. She has a confusing dream, and wakes up screaming (pages 233--234). How does this dream foreshadow what happens at the end of the novel?
14. Sara realizes she can forgive Paul and finally move on: "Perhaps she was capable of, at long last, loving Paul by letting him go" (page 251). Is Sara's "a-ha!" moment really spontaneous? Or do you think she came to this realization much earlier?
15. What outcome did you anticipate as Sara assembled her suitors in Claire's Paris apartment ("Courage to Break It")? Did the book's ending surprise you?
Posted December 9, 2008
At a New York university, Sara Frost knows that the best she can hope for is teaching Lit 101 as she remains unpublished, still needs to write her doctorate, and is unable to find the proof of her topic, Charlotte Bronte¿s letters. Adding to her downtrodden feelings is the newest member of the faculty lively self-promoting, media guru and published author and recognized expert on Princess Diana, Claire Vigee. The newcomer¿s élan sends Sara¿s bored fiancé Paul to Paris seeking life (on a fellowship of course), but not before he splits from her. --- Stunned by the desertion as much as by her own comparisons to the I am the greatest Claire, the reticent Sara loses her grant and is further manipulated by the hurricane who has taken over the school by storm. Soon Claire meets a film producer, who wants to do a New Age retelling of Charlotte's life with much more of the zest than normally presented. Yet through Claire¿s manipulations Sara risks all heading to Los Angeles and Europe seeking to avoid the label of a modern day ¿silent Victorian'. --- This fabulous satire lampoons academia, the book publishing industry, and Hollywood by having the Victorian romantic meet the modern day author. Readers will appreciate the comparisons between characters to include Charlotte as Sara is a serious scholar until driven away by the ¿worship of the pseudo-scholar Claire whose latest bets seller on Princess Di will leave readers in awe as it is not the substance that counts just the sales hyped by the PR. --- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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