Jane Austen’s most autobiographical and political novel, Mansfield Park may also be her least read work. Unlike the more popular Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s third published novel, which appeared in 1814, Mansfield Park seems cut from a very different cloth. For that reason alone it’s intriguing—and worth reading. Written at a time when Austen had recently relocated, Mansfield Park follows Fanny Price as she is uprooted from her childhood home and sent to live with her rich relatives. Not a typical Austen heroine, Fanny is introverted and awkward. She seems the perfect foil for the beautiful and charismatic Mary Crawford. Austen’s many references to the slave trade, which had recently been abolished in England, add an unusual political element to her usual social satire. This beautiful Mansfield Park: An Annotated Edition (Harvard, $35), with authoritative and illustrative commentary by Deidre Shauna Lynch, Harvard’s Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, caps Harvard’s fine Jane Austen Annotated Editions series; like its companion volumes, it encourages a slow, thoughtful reading of the story and appreciation for the world in which Jane Austen lived and wrote.
In the Russian translation world, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are Mick Jagger and Madonna. Uncontested rock stars. Their mission is clear: to bring the original Russian into English in its raw, vibrant, honest form. Their work on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is much known and lauded, and has redefined the way we read these beloved authors today. But in Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin (Knopf, $30) it’s clear that Pevear and Volokhonsky have really met their linguistic match. Pushkin’s muscular prose and so-real-they’re-breathing characters pop off the page in these new translations. “The Captain’s Daughter” is a special treat, the tender bravado of Pushkin at its finest in this novella about a love affair during Pugachev’s Rebellion.
Readers partial to family sagas or collections of interlocking narratives will love Ann Patchett’s masterful Commonwealth (HarperCollins, $27.99). Taking up different points of view, with reports that sometimes contradict each other, the novel begins with Franny Keating’s christening party, which turns into a drinking party when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. But the event has an unexpected outcome, launching a chain of events that leads to the breakup of two marriages and the creation of a blended family. Over the years, one child dies, the others grow up. Reaching adulthood, Franny Keating becomes romantically involved with a writer who bases his successful novel, Commonwealth, on her family’s experiences. Has he stolen Franny’s story? Has he stolen the whole family’s story, or has he only used key events to craft a narrative of his own? Many chapters of this tale might easily stand alone as short stories; instead, Patchett has crafted a novel spanning several generations and offering different perspectives on a single painful truth. This novel poses the questions of who a narrative belongs to and what is or isn’t appropriation, issues that Patchett knows well from the real life controversy about her memoir, Truth and Beauty.