As a fan of Jane Eyre and, well, books in general, the premise of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series has intrigued me for years. Imagine a fantasy world designed specifically for book-lovers. The first in the series, The Eyre Affair, follows the life of Thursday Next, literary detective in Fforde’s surreal comic fantasy version of England. When the nationally-treasured manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit goes missing, Next immediately recognizes the work of her former professor Acheron Hades, who is now considered the world’s most dangerous and devious man. Cruel and unrelenting, Hades is bent on a kind of evil that far ouweighs petty theft and ransom, and as he moves onto bigger and arguably better manuscripts (such as Jane Eyre) it’s up to Next to catch him before he does great damage to not only the manuscript but the book itself. This is a world where literature takes on a life of its own, where entering the world of a story is possible, and characters can be pulled from their books into real life. It may sound hokey, but Fforde does a good job of outlining the physics of this world enough to be accepted by readers and yet leaving them vague enough to avoid pages and pages explaining the mechanics of things.
I enjoyed everything I expected to in this novel – the many literary references, the fact that Fforde has created an England in which everyone passionately cares classic literature (and seems to know a great deal about obscure subjects like alternate theories for the authorship of Shakespeare). I sometimes felt that this series was mostly an outlet for Fforde to indulge his interest in such critical literary ideas. The “behind the scenes” look at the Jane Eyre narrative was delightful, and I think Fforde did a wonderful interpretation of Rochester’s character.
Yet there was something in Fforde’s work that didn’t quite capture me – not enough to read the whole series, anyway. I think it was a bit too tongue-in-cheek for me. I was so aware of the humor of his smart literary twists that it didn’t feel like a real world and setting; rather, it was a conglomeration of references intended for the dedicated bibliophile to enjoy, a series of functional characters, and a few ingenius reflections of Jane Eyre’s life in the events of Next’s. But never was I able to completely suspend my awareness of these devices and the purpose they were serving and genuinely get sucked into the book.
Though I was disappointed at some of the “oh look, happy ending!” elements, the climax of Next pursuing Hades from inside the story of Jane Eyre did keep the pages turning. Fforde also tied this narrative into the actual narrative of Jane Eyre in a way that was both surprising and quite clever. Overall The Eyre Affair was a good read, though not as lighthearted as I had naively expected. I would recommend reading it for a bit of a literary escape, especially if you have an appreciation for the classics but want something a bit lighter for a change.