A Case of First Impression by A.M. Blair

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.

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28 comments

  1. You know, I’ve never tried Jane Austen 🙊 I get the feeling I’d feel similar about her work to you, but I really should give her a go one day! Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed this. It’s always a relief when we genuinely enjoy the work of someone we like in real life! 😊

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  2. Wow, thank you for this review! It isn’t always easy to get reviews for self-published books—only a small percentage of readers seem to leave a review—so each review is especially important. I am particularly grateful for reviews like this one. I appreciate the well-balanced feedback.

    I wrote A Case of First Impression hoping that readers who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice could also enjoy it, but I intended it for people who love Austen’s original work as much as I do. What’s nice about writing retellings is that there’s a built-in audience for them that wasn’t there for my first novel, an original work. What’s nerve-wracking about writing retellings is that the established audience has understandable expectations about what should be in a retelling. It’s refreshing to read a review by someone who has seen the BBC miniseries but hasn’t read the book.

    I am glad that you enjoyed it (as biased as you may be!) and that you liked the details about the Barret’s bakery and tea shop. I wanted to balance the courtroom scenes with something lighter, and I imagined Elyse as someone who throws herself into her baking as a form of self-care (as well as her livelihood). You make a great point about Elyse’s legal knowledge. I tried to explain it by saying that Elyse is a good online researcher, but it was a challenge to write in first-person when the character doesn’t have the legal expertise that I do. My other retellings are third-person, and I think it’s a better fit for what I’m trying to do. If I ever republish this novel after a substantial re-write, I might steal your idea of making Elyse a law school dropout! 😉

    Thank you for reading my story, for writing a review, and for giving me some food for thought as I continue to write. I am in the middle of writing a modern update to Sense and Sensibility, and I will keep your comments in mind as I try to incorporate Jane Austen’s well-established characters into my modern family drama (with a legal twist, of course).

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    • You’re a relentless writer, and I love that! Have you ever seen Stranger than Fiction? It’s a great movie, and I just remembered that it has a baker who went to law school. She would bring snacks she baked to study sessions, and as she fed her friends and peers, her grades dropped. I also like the idea of Elyse checking her phone for definitions because then it wouldn’t seem awkward to have terms written verbatim. I mean, that’s where most of us are getting out knowledge anyway!

      I just thought of this: I did love how Jayne seemed omnipresent and nowhere. She was always in the garden, but she seemed wispy and floaty in a way….that’s how I viewed her in the BBC version, too. She was there and loved and gave love, but she would be out of the picture quite a bit, too.

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      • I haven’t seen Stranger than Fiction, but I should! Thanks for the recommendation.

        I’m glad you liked the way I portrayed Jayne. I went back and forth about how much of the story should focus on her. I decided against involving her in a romance (that’s a big risk when doing a Pride and Prejudice retelling!). My adaptation has romantic elements, but it’s really a legal drama that focuses on Lyla and Elyse. The original book and the movies have darker moments, and that’s what inspired me. It was so interesting to watch the BBC miniseries with my daughter, who did not believe Pride and Prejudice has a happy ending because Lydia marries Wickham.

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        • When I watch the BBC version, I feel like Lydia is such a horribly, selfish girl — and then she comes back and acts like she’s more experienced and knowledgeable that her older sisters — because she’s had sex, so I never felt much positive about her. Reading your Lyla made me more compassionate and reminded me SHE’S 16. Regardless of the norms of the time period, she’s 16 whenever she exists.

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  3. I’m a JA fan and to be honest don’t understand your reaction to Pride & Prejudice (and I can’t imagine how you feel about my own indiscriminate use of commas and semi colons). JA RIP offs are mostly fun – Mr Darcy’s Daughters for instance. Lydia is my own favourite character, she’s got spunk. Other spin off writers have suggested she and Wickham ended up in Australia (New South Wales back then) and maybe ended up in a gold rush hotel.

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    • I get frustrated with the way words are out of order for what is considered normal today. I’m already dyslexic, so having the words out of order (according to today’s English) slows me down greatly. A semi-colon is supposed to separate independent clauses; Austen’s often do not. You may have a comma splice here and there, Bill… 😀

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  4. Well you had me at Pride and Prejudice and courtroom settings, and as I kept reading when you said the book talked about tea and baked goods…..stop. I will be getting this book, hopefully from my library, but it might be one I think I enjoy. The premise sounds very good. I am usually not the biggest fan of retelling, but I have another Pride and Prejudice modern story I’ve been reading, too.

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    • Yes! Every time the character discussed baked goods and tea, I thought of you 😀

      Since Amal’s book is self-published, it won’t be at your library; however, it is 99 cents on Amazon. If you don’t own a Kindle e-reader (I don’t), you can download the app for free on your phone and computer. I have both and will switch back and forth (they two sync so you never lose your place).

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  5. I have read Pride & Prejudice but I am not at all a Jane Austen fan. This sounds like an interesting twist on the story though and I can appreciate the accuracy in the legal portrayals. (In my limited experience, courtrooms are very boring.)

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    • I was a juror one time, and the judge sat there for hours explaining why he’s so far behind on the cases he has to be the judge for. All I could think was, “Maybe your so behind because you spend an inordinate amount of time talking about why you’re behind.”

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  6. I don’t think I’ve come across a P&P retelling quite like this one. I used to be hard on Lydia as well, but every time I get close to resenting her frivolousness in any rendition, I remind myself how young she is and that she is the one that was taken advantage of by Wickham, not the other way around. By taking the route involving human trafficking, my guess is readers will see this a lot more clearly. Glad you enjoyed this one!

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    • Lyla, as she is called in A Case of First Impression, also has moments in which she tentatively tries to reach out to her older sister through baking and creativity. There is a hesitation there I felt was convincing, as if she were trying to feel out how angry her family was with her for running away.

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  7. Oh lord I’ve read a bit of Jane Austen but don’t remember a jot of it so don’t apologize, it’s no biggie. This sounds like an enjoyable book for sure. I love baked goods AND tea so I think I’d find it soothing to read…except for the whole human trafficking part

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  8. I would read this book just for the bakery setting! I love bakeries, and everything inside them. 🙂
    It’s so great that you bought her books. I just might add this one to my wishlist, as well as her updated Anne of GG – I’m pretty sure it would be hard to find in the libraries here since it’s self-published. Thanks for reviewing it!

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    • Hi, Naomi! Amal’s books cost just 99 cents, so you might as well go for it! I think you would enjoy the bakery and tea setting AND the courtroom. I know you read more serious works, too, and this book is a good combo. I haven’t read the Anne of Green Gables retelling yet, but it’s coming down the line soon!

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  9. You haven’t had “likes” on your posts forever. And yet I keep looking for them here. Why? Because I like all the posts you write! So, just know that reading this made me happy and I wanted to press like. 🙂

    I’m so glad you bought all of A.M. Blair’s books! When people we love do amazing things, we need to support them. I love it when I can support my blogger friends. While I know many book bloggers go on to publish books, I only know two bloggers who have done this since I started to follow them — and neither know me from Bob on the street. XD

    This sounds like a well-balanced book, criticism about Elyse aside. I get what you’re saying about how those small bits of highly-specialized, detailed information can discredit the character. Your ideas about Googling compulsively on the phone make me smile. I do that! I kid you not. I need to know if I’m getting things right. XD Oops.

    What made you decide to read the most recently published book of Blair’s first?

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    • I found that when I had the like button, I would get confused about why there were so many likes and so few comments. The same people would like and never comment. Some of them are spam accounts, some are other book bloggers. Are they reading or not?! I don’t know, but I decided to come up with a way to not even worry about it: get rid of the like button.

      I chose to read Amal’s newest book because it just came out, and I know that early support really matters for sales. She’s not trying to boost sales to show a publisher that their investment was worth it, but more boosting means more reviews and more buying. People will look at a book a few years old and wonder why it has 2 ratings on Goodreads. So, I started with her newest novel and will get to her older novels as soon as I can.

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