In her YA novel The Trouble with Flirting, Claire LaZebnik draws on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for inspiration for both characters and plot, while making plenty of changes to keep her readers guessing what happens next. Her Franny Pearson gets to go to the Mansfield Theater Program in Portland, Oregon in the summer of her junior year in high school, except that instead of studying in the program, she has a job working for her aunt, sewing costumes for performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure. Franny, like Austen’s Fanny Price, seems destined to be always in the wings, never on stage, and when the “super cute” Harry Cartwright appears on the scene, it seems obvious that, like Henry Crawford, he believes women will always find him irresistible.
Harry does try to defend himself when Julia Braverman tells him he assumes he’s irresistible, asking the girl next to him, “Marie, help me out here. Do I act like I expect all the girls are going to fall at my feet?” Julia and Marie, of course, both fall for Harry, just as Julia and Maria Bertram both fall for Henry Crawford’s charms. Franny admires Harry’s “gray-green eyes and thick dark blond hair,” and his imperfect but still very attractive features, but she’s also cynical about him from the very beginning: “Harry is lounging over by the drinks dispenser, and I do mean lounging: he’s kind of leaning his hip on the counter as he’s filling his cup, like he’s too cool to stand upright. I bet he practices that pose in his room at night.”
Franny has her heart set instead on Alex Braverman, the Edmund Bertram-like character, someone she had a crush on in eighth grade. Even his name suggests he’s the better man. Unlike Harry, Alex seems like the nice guy, the thoughtful one, the one who buys Franny books as a present, even when he’s dating Harry’s best friend Isabella. Harry doesn’t buy books – he buys Franny a cupcake. Franny doesn’t let go of her first impressions of him, but she does begin to acknowledge “he’s funnier and smarter than I’ve given him credit for.” Still, she concludes, “I guess guys like Harry can be good company so long as you don’t forget that they’re, you know … guys like Harry.”
Claire LaZebnik’s take on Mansfield Park is very funny and very smart, both familiar and surprising. Austen’s Mr. Rushworth makes an appearance, as the socially awkward but very rich James Rushport, owner of a silver Porsche convertible; Franny’s Aunt Amelia, like Austen’s Mrs. Norris, seems to derive pleasure from making her niece work hard; and the whole group goes on an expedition to the beach that resembles the Sotherton expedition in Mansfield Park. It’s a pleasure to recognize elements from Austen’s novel, and it’s entertaining to watch as LaZebnik remakes the characters and plot for her own purposes.
Not every author can pull this off in a way that simultaneously honors the original novel and delights the reader with new twists. Claire LaZebnik is that rare exception, and The Trouble with Flirting is an excellent homage to Mansfield Park – a delight for Austen readers, and for readers who have yet to discover any of Austen’s novels. I’ll resist the temptation to tell you many more details about the complexities of LaZebnik’s indebtedness to Austen, but I will say that her Franny Pearson desperately wants to study acting, and in that desire she could not be more different from Fanny Price….
I’m very happy to have discovered The Trouble with Flirting in the year of Mansfield Park’s 200th anniversary and I can’t wait to read Claire LaZebnik’s novel Epic Fail (inspired by Pride and Prejudice) and her newest book, The Last Best Kiss (inspired by Persuasion).