It's always a delight to stumble upon a chick-lit novel that is smart, well-crafted and witty. Such is the case with Kim Izzo's The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, a debut novel that brings class to the genre.
I'm not going to lie. At first I was skeptical of the premise: A single, 40-year-old woman goes on a mission to prove that she, and others like her, can "make a good marriage" in modern times. In other words, she throws her scruples out the window and sets off on a mercenary mission to marry for money. But in the spirit of the Jane Austen novels from which this story is inspired, I decided to keep an open mind and set my skepticism aside.
I'm glad I did. When we are first introduced to Kate Shaw, she is an acting beauty editor for a fashion magazine and living at home with her mother and grandmother. In rapid-fire succession, Kate loses her job, her beloved grandmother dies and her mother's gambling debt forces them to sell their family home. In the bleak landscape of the recession, Kate finds herself jobless and homeless.
This is where the reader is asked to suspend belief: In the perfect storm of Kate's grief, poverty and midlife crisis, she accepts a freelance assignment inspired by her heroine, Jane Austen, and sets out to answer the question of whether it is possible in this day and age to marry well.
But not only does Kate intend to write the article, she intends to live it as well. In her delusion, she hatches a plan to prove that a 40-year-old woman can find a husband for the sole purpose of financial security, and in so doing, solve her own family's financial crisis.
It is at this point that Kate's principles, independence and integrity are suddenly supplanted by those of an unrecognizable, calculating gold-digger.
To her credit, Izzo's writing is so breezy and engaging, I was happy to buy in. Lady Kate (as she's now known, thanks to the title her best friends bought her for her 40th birthday) travels from New York to St. Moritz and London, chasing and being chased by a cast of male characters ranging from the repugnant to the ravishing, seamlessly infiltrating the high society to which her future rich husband belongs.
Once Kate's in Europe, the story really hits its stride. Izzo has either done her research or is well acquainted with the polo crowd. Her observations are wry and often hilarious, and the narrative flows briskly, as though Kate is an old friend confiding in us about her adventures traipsing across Switzerland.
She quickly hones in on Scott Madewell, a wealthy, attractive older man, but there's a glitch in her plan in the form of sexy, antagonistic Griff Saunderson. (Didn't see that one coming!) Kate is so focused on becoming Scott's wife, she ignores the obvious mutual attraction with Griff, and the reader is left in suspense as to whether Kate will choose "Mr. Right or Mr. Rich."
Kate is a mostly likeable character; she's smart, self-deprecating and determined. In spite of her book's few clichés and the inevitable neat and tidy "happily ever after," Izzo has mastered structure and pace, and the result is an enjoyable, entertaining ode to Pride and Prejudice.
Love or money, that is the question. Original? Who cares? The point is, we do care about which man Kate is going to choose and whether, indeed, "happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance."
Special to The Globe and Mail