Like many readers of a certain age, I spent a phase of my youth pining over Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, particularly that scene (you know the one). In college, I was delighted and privileged with the opportunity to deepen my love of Jane Austen’s works by taking a course dedicated to them, and by visiting Bath while I was studying abroad in England.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve drifted somewhat from my habit of re-reading Jane in favor of modern literature, but that love has never truly faded. So, any time I see something marketed as a modern take on the Jane Austen style, it is a truth universally acknowledged that I must read it.
Lex Croucher’s Reputation is just such a book, billed as “Bridgerton meets Gossip Girl with a dash of Jane Austen.” I had the pleasure of receiving an advanced audiobook copy from NetGalley & the publisher. Many thanks for the opportunity to listen to this delightful performance by Bessie Carter of Bridgerton fame.
Before we get to the review, a few content warnings: This book features implied illicit drug use and alcohol over-consumption, as well as brief descriptions of and allusions to sexual assault. My review may briefly touch on these elements, so please do read on with caution.
(Full disclosure: I received a free audio copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. Book links below are Bookshop.org affiliate links).
The framing of Reputation is this — Georgiana’s parents move to the countryside for her mother’s health (as one does) and leave her in the city with her aunt and uncle. Initially, it seems this will be a boring time for Georgiana, until she meets the mischievous and reckless Frances Campbell.
Frances, Georgiana recognizes upon first meeting her, has main character energy, and draws her new friend into a close-knit circle of well-off young men and women who like a spot of fun. Unchaperoned fun involving alcohol, open flirtation, and mysterious substances smoked in pipes, to be specific.
What follows reminds me a great deal of Mean Girls in the best of ways. Despite knowing it’s not entirely in her best interest, Georgiana can’t help but be drawn in to their fun, carefree way of life. She attends unchaperoned parties and enjoys the occasional company of the handsome Mr. Hawskley (not 100% sure on spelling as I did the audiobook).
What follows is, of course, the requisite drama and power struggle between young women vying to find their place in a society that has very specific — and highly limiting — expectations of them.
One of the things I liked about Reputation is the inclusion of a diverse cast of characters, which can sometimes be difficult to come by in period pieces. Frances and Mr. Hawksley are both people of color, and there is some representation of LGBTQIA+ individuals as well (I shan’t say who, because spoilers).
For the most part I thought this was handled well, though perhaps brushed over in places a bit more than it should be. In some parts, it does remind me a bit of the awkwardness in the Netflix adaptation of Bridgerton, where mostly we ignore that some of the characters are Black except for occasional, almost random, acknowledgement.
This is less clumsy than that, and I do think overall a good attempt at balancing not making everything about which characters are of color while also noting the ways in which things are different for them as a result. But I will also acknowledge that there are things I may well miss, not being a person of color myself.
I confess I can’t re-watch Mean Girls and didn’t quite finish Gossip Girl because I tend to get annoyed when characters are just kind of shitty to one another all the time, for the sake of drama. So, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I’d love this book, but was surprised to find how compelling the characters were in spite of their bad behavior. They felt — with the exception of a few caricature types — like nuanced and complex individuals doing their best to stave off boredom and find their place in a world with so many darn rules.
In all, this book was a great deal of fun while also tackling a few more complicated issues along the way. Georgiana manages to be likeable in spite of the poor judgement she displays in some of the book’s climactic moments, and I very much enjoyed watching her learn from her mistakes and try to make them right.
While Reputation does include some romance, in my opinion it is first and foremost a coming-of-age story about female friendship and the ways in which it becomes complicated by issues of class, social expectations, and sexuality.
I recommend this book, which comes out in April of 2022, to fans of Jane Austen, Bridgerton, and Mean Girls. As I listened on audio I will add that I very much enjoyed the narration and would certainly recommend that format to those who like a good audiobook.