I’ve been following blogger Amal @ The Misfortune of Knowing for several years. Her mixture of books and law have taught me so much about copyright, interpretation of law, and how individuals like herself are fighting daily for civil rights — in the court room! She’s also the mother of lovely twins and their younger sibling, about whom we read frequently when Amal shares thoughts about guiding — not censoring — young readers. As if she didn’t do enough, Amal also writes books! To support her work, I’ve purchased all four novels Amal has published. A Case of First Impression, her newest novel and the first of her work that I’ve read, was just released. I will try to be as honest as possible in my review, though my fondness for Amal (notice that I’m even using her first name) will inevitably make me biased to some degree.
A Case of First Impression explores a facet of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice — what happened between Lidia and Wickham when they ran off together? Amal updates her setting, shifting the story to a 21st century bakery and courtroom in Pennsylvania. The characters have new names; they’re similar to Austen’s original crew. This is where I confess that I’ve never read Pride & Prejudice. Say what you will, but Austen’s style of using semi-colons where we don’t today, and describing every little detail, make my eyes droopy. I do try, and I do understand why readers love her work. Like every Darcy-loving weirdo out there, I love Colin Firth in the BBC mini series and understand the plot of Pride & Prejudice as it is told in that rendition.
The novel focuses on Lyla Barret’s time with George Wickersham. When we meet George in the past, he throws on the charm so that Elyse Barret thinks he’s grand. But in the present scenes, he’s already convicted of human trafficking, and attempting to traffick sixteen-year-old Lyla. The court scenes focus on Margaret Younge, a woman accused of helping George hold Lyla against her will.
I think knowing the plot of Pride and Prejudice is helpful in reading A Case of First Impression. Much of the plot focuses on the court case, so having pre-established
feelings about each of the characters does a lot of the heavy lifting. You may even ask why there are five Barret sisters when only three of them seem to do anything. We could ask the same question of Austen, but since Austen did it first, Amal faithfully crafts five sisters who live/work in the family bakery. The father is largely absent, and the mother doesn’t leave her room. Without the character establishment from Austen’s work, readers may have some questions about the people in A Case of First Impression. However, fans of the original work will be entertained by reading these updated characters.
My favorite part about the novel was the courtroom setting. Skipping the TV/movie drama, Amal creates lawyers who follow procedure, and her legal expertise shows on the page. I was especially surprised that people on the stand didn’t tell these long, dramatic stories and instead answered each question directly and without offering more information than necessary. If there was more information needed, the lawyer would ask. I was relieved, to be honest, that courtrooms aren’t the zoos I’ve always imagined — surprise witnesses, someone busting through the court room door with a piece of evidence no one knew about, some kind of “you can’t handle the truth” off-the-rails speech.
Because there are two lawyers in Elyse’s family — aunts who live in another town — I wished that Elyse had always wanted to be a lawyer and then ended up changing her mind and becoming a passionate baker. While she claims that she is a capable Googler, which is where she gets her information about trials, her thinking goes beyond common knowledge, such as memorizing that the 6th Amendment says “justice must be ‘speedy,’ . . . but not at the expense of fairness.” At other times, Elyse will quote something verbatim. For example:
According to his firm’s promotional materials, it was Colin’s job to “assist companies in their quest to extract value from their intellectual assets,” including copyright, patents, and trademarks.
As a result, I thought the characterization was just a touch off. Would it be possible have in Elyse’s history a year of law school, and then she dropped out? Or could she have her phone in hand, be Googling information, and read what the phone says to us? These were questions I kept asking myself.
Although the trial is tough on the Barret family, the author soothes her characters and readers with lots of excellent details about bakery items and tea. Elyse experiments with local, in-season ingredients, especially from her sister Jayne’s garden, and Jayne advises patrons on which tea to pair with their baked good. I was completely transported to the Barret family business, and even enjoyed that not everyone loved their bakery/tea shop, such as Daren, who demands coffee but can’t get it. Elyse tells him that there is a local cafe in their village, and the Barret’s do not sell coffee because there is enough business for a cafe and tea shop without poaching customers. That kind of bigger thinking made me feel warm inside — and thirsty.
Overall, I enjoyed A Case of First Impression every time I picked it up. It’s carefully edited and written in a style of prose that doesn’t make you crossed-eyed trying to follow along (James Baldwin, I’m currently looking at you). When I was struggling with maintaining a work-life balance this past week, other books would be too much for me, but Amal’s novel was there to enjoy.