***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
I enjoyed this book for exactly what it was--a fun romp. I read it right after something heavy and long (Code Name Verity), and it was the perfect, cheery palate cleanser. It's wonderfully frothy and, well, Regency, and if you're ever in the mood for something that will simply make you happy while you're reading, pick up Keeping the Castle.
So I've read all six of Jane Austen's novels (including Pride and Prejudice maybe four times, and Sense and Sensibility twice), and it takes a lot to impress me. This was definitely aiming to be Austen Lite, and if you take it exactly as that and no more, it's a delightful, fun read. I loved that it was a book that distracted and buoyed me, and made me want to pick it up each time I came back to it (which I did, very much). It was a pleasure to read, not a chore; no slogging here. It's a wonderful introduction to Austen for younger readers, especially, and that's it's particular strength I think. It avoids some of the longer, lingering passages on minor characters and sub-plots that Austen has, and gets straight to the romantic (and ultimately most satisfying) point. But readers' advisory: as such, it's fluff compared with Austen, who put all of her observations about her society (or her particular caste) on the block with her work. Someday that same young reader must graduate to read Jane Austen, to understand what it really is.
The main character was charming and outspoken, but not quite as nuanced (I'm sorry, Kindl begs this comparison!) as Elizabeth Bennet. I love that Lizzie is biting, but not in a "perfect" way--she has a genuine caustic edge to her that's sometimes a little scary. In this book, Althea is witty and cynical, but it doesn't ever burn like acid. But perhaps to compensate for that, the love interest in KEEPING THE CASTLE was much better fleshed out than Mr. Darcy. (I have a thing for men who love their work, so that doesn't hurt my affections for Mr. Fredericks.) Prudence and Charity were amusing evil stepsisters, but I thought they were flat characters. We don't have a sense of inner life to them at all--they serve an important purpose to the plot, but aren't people themselves. (And Prudence probably didn't have to be there at all.)
I wanted Althea to scold Mr. Fredericks a little less, and impress him a little more in other ways. Her genuine strengths are visible in some important ways (e.g. her compassion in taking care of Leon; her resourcefulness in saving them from the mine pit; her fearlessness in returning to the castle to gather clothes) but many of her direct verbal interactions with him started with old-fashioned nagging about proper behavior. I wanted her to be smart and knowledgeable in front of him (as well as cynical and outspoken) and perhaps most importantly for him to see her gentleness to the people she bestowed her love on, just to make her absolutely irresistible to him. Their marriage won't survive on playful quarreling alone, after all.
A couple of anachronism quibbles:
1. salad (lettuces and herbs with a vinegar or vinaigrette) was not a thing in Regency England, and even with no food in the larder I doubt she'd consider it for a picnic that others would eat;
2. Mr. Fredericks uses "you know" and "look," in a modern idiomatic way ("Look, you've led a sheltered life here in this small village..." and, "...if you were to, you know, do me the honor and so on..." and, "D'you know? When I first came here they told me you were one of the most beautiful women in Europe." Also, would any regency Englishman use the term Europe, and especially lump England in with those other states [including France, which they were at war with]? Wouldn't he say, "one of the most beautiful women here or on the Continent" or "in all of Christendom" or something of the sort?)
The author sometimes slips up and uses cliches just a tad--not too much, but when they're in a Regency setting you notice them: "Audibly grinding his teeth he said, 'Oh, very well...'" [And incidentally, during a loud thunderstorm, outside, in the rain--would you really hear grinding?]
And sometimes Kindl uses Althea to "tell" us, a little heavy-handedly, about the difference between modern viewpoints and those of the period:
1. "'I regard a handsome nobleman as not good enough for me! I demand to marry a man I both like and respect!' And I shook my head at my own folly."
2. "Perhaps one day women might be able to choose their husbands with no thought of money and position, but not in this day and age in Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, England."
Some plot points that seemed out of place, or unrealistic:
1. Althea has been trying to get Mr. Fredericks to marry Miss Vincy, and then when Godalming's advances need to be thwarted, all of a sudden Althea seems to have forgotten her previous strategy. She wanted Godalming to force Fredericks to propose, so why doesn't she pursue this in her talks with Fredericks? In fact, hasn't her plan worked out perfectly up till now? So when Fredericks says, "and the only other local marital possibilities for her daughter are now exhausted," why doesn't she dispute this and point out that he, Fredericks, could marry Miss Vincy? (If it's against propriety to say that, why doesn't she think it?)
2. The whole point of her endeavors has been to keep the castle, and repair it for her little brother to inherit, and then when most of it falls into the North Sea she's barely affected by it at first, talking about how everyone in the carriage is looking at her to see how embarrassing it might be for her to have to bunk with the Baron's family, so she "forces a smile." Would she really think her companions--in that tragedy, in that genuine calamity--are thinking about her embarrassment? Or put it this way: would thoughts like this be strong enough to distract her from her grief? (I know it's light, and it's something of a comedy, but the loss of that wing to the sea should have been a crisis moment for her.)
3. In the end, in the marriage proposal scene, she misunderstands at first that Fredericks is talking about marrying Miss Vincy, but then a couple of paragraphs later she knows he's talking about her, with no transition--the author doesn't use the misunderstanding to any effect, she just drops it. It would have been much more fun to see dawn breaking on Althea's marble head: that he loves her.
The relationship between Fredericks and the Baron is just hinted at, and I wanted to know more about why they were so intimate, what kindness the Baron showed to him when he was young, and more specifically how Fredericks "in a way" saved the Baron's life.
And lastly, even though Jane Austen didn't show Lizzie and Darcy kissing, deep protestations of affection are definitely in order at the end of a book like this. We need to hear in their own words the story of when their feelings changed, and how ardent they are now. We've waited this whole time to see Althea open up about her love, and yet the book ends on witty repartee. I found that unsatisfying, and not worthy of their relationship! I want to see that they can also be passionate about each other, not just delight in the quarreling and the intellectual stimulation of banter. I want the promise of sex in the privacy of their marital bedchamber, and you can only imagine that if there's an undercurrent of desire in the acknowledgment of their affections.
But it was an entirely enjoyable read.