Being Mary Bennet, the debut novel from J. C. Peterson, is a love letter to every nerdy girl who wishes she was Lizzie Bennet, but secretly knows that she is Mary. Most of us are in this boat, and it gets us down. Now, there have been a million contemporary Pride & Prejudice retellings, so it can be hard to get jazzed about a new one, even for hardcore fans. But seeing the story through Mary’s eyes takes us to a whole new world.
An unlikable, but lovable, protagonist
Marnie Barnes is the type of girl who wants to spend her birthday alone in the library. She prefers to spend her life buried in the classics. She carries around worn copies of Jane Eyre or Anne of Green Gables to read over and over again. Most of all, she is right in the middle of five sisters, the least remarkable of the bunch, with a mother who has always judged her at every turn.
Marnie will never be beautiful and beloved like her older sister, Lindy. Instead, she is prickly and awkward and always speaks her mind, sometimes by accident.
She is the YA heroine that we can all relate to. She might have said a few things that made me cringe, and she did a few things that I definitely did not agree with, but ultimately, that just made her more real. I appreciated reading about a girl who makes mistakes.
A one-sided, sisterly rivalry
Throughout the story, Marnie’s goal is to win the prestigious Hunt Prize, which Lindy won several years ago. By winning, she hopes that her father will finally start paying attention to her. She presents her plan to the judges: Bark Books, a program where little kids can read books to puppies at a local shelter. This will encourage both reading and puppy adoption, the two things she’s most passionate about!
Her plan is approved, and now she must cross the next hurdle: finding a mentor. She wants to ask her dad, but asking him is harder than she anticipated. Early in the novel, there is a heartbreaking scene where Marnie attends a family gathering and is completely ignored. Her mom asks her to take a photo of the rest of the family, as if she isn’t a part of it, and Marnie storms away. As someone who comes from a difficult family, I ached for her. The author perfectly captured those emotions on the page.
Bit off more than it could chew
This novel tried to tackle a lot of different relationships. Family is the biggest focus in this book, particularly her feelings of inadequacy with her father and her sister Lindy. This part of the book felt authentic. We don’t see enough big families in YA, and it gave a fresh twist to the “overshadowed sibling” trope, because Marnie is overshadowed not by one sister, but four! The family dynamic really shines in this book—I loved how they kept all five sisters, when most retellings cut one or two. The chaos felt like the Bennet household in Pride & Prejudice itself.
Our heroine also finds herself caught in a love triangle. Since middle school, she’s been pining over one of her sister’s friends. Again, super relatable for nerdy readers such as myself. When that relationship becomes a possibility, however, she starts to think she might prefer to love him from afar.
At the same time, a cute boy at the dog shelter starts flirting with her, and Marnie doesn’t know what to do. Does she let go of her tragic unrequited love story for something real? Or is that still too scary?
I found Marnie’s romantic relationships extremely compelling and relatable. They gave her plenty of opportunities to screw up in a frustrating and endearing way. Near the end, however, it felt like the author was running out of time and some conflicts were resolved too quickly.
I felt the same way about Marnie’s relationship with her roommate and best friend. They are complete best friend goals, and I loved every minute Adhira was on the page. But throughout the story, conflict builds between them and finally, when it reaches a boiling point, the resolution is a bit of a letdown. This novel tried to explore everything, to its detriment.
Austen nerds, unite!
Even if you’re fed up with Austen retellings, try this one. Marnie will probably win your heart, draw you in, and not let go. And if you really can’t stand her, at least there are plenty of cute boys and puppies.
Being Mary Bennet was released on March 15th.