Jane Austen (like Arthur Conan Doyle) has had her books and characters re-imagined more times then I could possibly count. And for me I think, the retellings and re-imaginings of Jane Austen's books and characters have more often been a miss then hit. The Other Bennet Sister is that rare thing for me, not only a hit, but one that has been knocked out of the park. The titular sister is the one most often overlooked, middle-sister Mary. Granted I've always had a soft spot for the socially awkward, stern Mary, so to say I was sympathetic from the start is fair. But Hadlow gives readers a chance to see events in a new light and she does so in a novel rich with the details of Austen's world, but also imbued with a fresh new energy and dry humor.
The first section of this historical novel re-draws the events so familiar to fans of P&P. This time told from Mary's point of view. As a small child Mary looks up to her older sisters Lizzie and Jane and dotes on the younger ones. But as they all grow older their mother's determination that Mary has neither charm nor beauty and because her sisters naturally fall into two pairs with her as the odd one in the middle feeling unloved and unwanted. Mary longs for more closeness with her sisters and yearns for her father's approval. As you read of young Mary you'll see familiar story beats but perhaps realize what might have been clever or funny when seen from Lizzie's viewpoint, is actually not quite so admirable when you realize the impact on Mary. The latter sections of the novel have Mary moving into new millieus and coming to terms with what she will do with her life past being the spinster sister who has to depend on her family members for a home.
The underlying theme throughout is how does one find happiness. Early on Mary is told that "happiness is a matter of chance", then that happiness is a choice and finally she comes to realize that happiness is something that must be cultivated. And it's only when she makes this discovery is Mary able to open herself up to love and her own version of happiness.