Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Dashwood Sisters Tell All
by Beth Pattillo
Paperback: 272 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0824948740, April 2011
Two estranged sisters are forced to travel to England to participate in a walking tour of significant landmarks in the life and work of Jane Austen. Under normal circumstances, it might sound like the trip of a lifetime, but for Ellen and Mimi Dodge, the journey is bittersweet. The trip was a final gift from the sisters’ Jane Austen-obsessed mother—her dying wish was that her daughters could somehow overcome their differences and become as close as they were as children. But that’s not all. Ellen and Mimi’s mother has an unbelievable secret that her daughters will discover over the course of their trip.
Sisters, family secrets, a little mystery, a dash of romance—it sounds like all of the perfect ingredients for an enjoyable read (not to mention a Jane Austen novel), but The Dashwood Sisters Tell All by Beth Pattillo falls into the “been there, done that” category. Aside from the Jane Austen connection, Pattillo isn’t giving her readers much of anything new. She does include a number of references that clearly show a strong appreciation for and knowledge of Austen’s life and work—an appreciation that obviously stems from her own life and provides much of the framework for the character of Mrs. Dodge. In another ode to her literary heroine, Pattillo based the love/hate relationship between the Dodge sisters on the real-life relationship between Austen and her sister, Cassandra, in much the same way that Austen herself did for the characters of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, proving that sibling rivalry is almost as old as time itself.
Pattillo does some things right. The guilt that both Ellen and Mimi feel about the loss of their mother, and of each other as a result, comes across quite plainly. Both sisters alternate narrating the story to give a more balanced account of events and offer glimpses into their personalities—Ellen, admittedly more conservative, provides the necessary sensibility and structure for the lively, impulsive Mimi, and vice versa.
Over the course of the story, the walls of tension between Ellen and Mimi dissolve a bit. They learn that their mother possessed Cassandra Austen’s diary—a rare artifact that could easily net them millions if sold at auction. But there’s more. And the sisters aren’t the only ones who know about this diary, as they learn over the course of their trip. Another, even more valuable diary exists, that of Jane Austen herself, and it’s up to Ellen and Mimi to find it. This is when the sisters put their own personal feelings aside and set off on a quest of sorts to find the missing diary.
The cast of supporting characters add some depth and intrigue to the storyline and bring out different dimensions of the Dodge sisters. Mimi falls hard for Ethan, an antiques collector with a few ulterior motives of his own, while Ellen reconnects with her childhood sweetheart Daniel. Pattillo creates the impression that although she wrote the story and Ellen and Mimi are telling that story, there is a larger force at work behind the sequence of events. Mrs. Dodge, perhaps, dictating her intentions for her daughters from the Great Beyond? It would certainly appear that way. Luckily, things do work out for the best, so if Mrs. Dodge did have some foresight for her daughters, they both came to the realization that Mother Knows Best completely on their own.
Pattillo includes enough references to important British landmarks to keep both Anglophiles and Jane Austen fans engaged in the plot. The Dashwood Sisters Tell All is a fun and intelligent nod to the great novelist, and modern-day audiences may want to read out Austen’s works to understand why she remains such an inspiration to today’s writers.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com