TW: A high school student describes being groomed by a teacher, infidelity. also pregnancy loss and emotional abuse including body-shaming
Mary Bennet is my favorite of the sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Her great sin is that she has no sense of humility and no sense of humor, but I’ve always believed that over time she might develop those qualities and just be an awesome nerd who likes reading in the corner. Being Mary Bennet is a modern-day story in which a high school senior at a San Francisco boarding school comes to accept the best of her Mary-like qualities while pushing herself to become less self-conscious, less judgmental, and basically more open to people and experiences.
Marnie Barnes is the least noticed sister in a family of sisters. Her oldest sister, Joss, is outrageously beautiful. She is married to a lovely woman and the mother of triplets. The next sister, Lindy, is fabulous at school, fabulous in her career, and married to Will, who is essentially Silicon Valley royalty. Lola is a screw-up, but at least she’s interesting, and Kitty is her mom’s favorite shopping companion. Marnie is just…invisible, both at home and at boarding school, where she has no friends and struggles with being constantly compared to Lindy. Marnie takes solace in books and tells herself that she prefers to be left alone.
Marnie’s roommate, Adhira, insists on taking Marnie out for dinner on Marnie’s eighteenth birthday with some of Adhira’s friends. It goes so badly that Marnie is forced to realize that she is not a modern Elizabeth Darcy – she is much more like Mary Bennet, the sister no one likes who is judgmental, humorless, and rigid. Marnie vows to change and asks Adhira to help her. The rest involves a romance, a school project in which children read to shelter dogs, fashion, a ball, and an acceptance that while Mary Bennet had a lot of negative qualities, she had some good ones too, ones that Marnie wants to keep.
Marnie is deeply flawed but also deeply relatable, especially since she narrates her own story which allows us direct access to her feelings and motivations. Her love of reading classic books, especially Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Anne of Green Gables is instantly identifiable to those of us who like that sort of thing, and, as you know, I like that sort of thing very much. I can’t tell you how much kinship I feel with someone who says, “There are some things even Jane Eyre can’t fix. I know, I was just as surprised.”
A lot of this book is painful. We hear and see Marnie’s family erase and ignore and insult her again and again in scenes that are morbidly funny but still agonizing. We can tell from the start of the book that the man Marnie has a crush on is gaslighting her, but she falls for it again and again and because we love her it’s maddening (although the payoff is worth it). One of Marnie’s sisters goes through a terrible tragedy that has nothing funny about it – it’s just incredibly sad.
Above all, it’s hard to see Marnie deflate and backslide at every setback, but her behavior is also in character. Adhira, and other people as well, don’t let her regress too far for too long. Sometimes Marnie behaves terribly, but we understand why. This book does a great job of illustrating that change is neither quick nor linear. Marnie is not one makeover montage away from being her best self. She has to work at it, and fail, and go to bed, and be dragged out of bed by Adhira, and try again, and fail a little less, or maybe more, and do this over and over again. I was often frustrated with Marnie but I also appreciated the more realistic look at growth.
I’m making this seem depressing but honestly the book is full of sweetness (especially between Marnie and Will, who works at the animal shelter) and snarky humor. It’s also rich in empathy, allowing many moments of reconciliation between Marnie and people who either have hurt her, or whom she has hurt, or both, although I did think that Marnie’s parents got off way too easily, especially Marnie’s mother.
The romance between Will and Marnie is full of missteps and misunderstandings but also full of kindness and common ground. There are cute dogs and kids, not to mention an iguana. Marnie even learns, through Adhira, whose passion is theatrical costuming, to appreciate fashion, something she initially dismisses as “silly stuff.”
I’ve read this book twice now and although I often want to smack Marnie with a pillow, I really appreciate that this narrative shows how deeply ingrained certain patterns can be and that breaking them is still possible. There’s a lot crammed into this story, including some plot lines that could use more development. In general, though, I love this little hedgehog of a book, which suggests that in some ways one might wish to be very different from Mary Bennet but in others, Mary Bennet (and Marnie) is kind of awesome.