I really didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Landry Park by Bethany Hagen. Admit it, you’d be skeptical too, reading pitch after pitch of high-octane namedropping: “Downton Abbey meets The Selection in this dystopian tale of love and betrayal!” “Gone With The [Nuclear] Wind meets Jane Austen!”
That’s a high bar to set. But much to my relief, the eager beavers in charge of jacket copy were right: "Landry Park" is a mélange of sci-fi inventions, well-written characters, and classic literary allusions.
Readers will find echoes of the Tara plantation from "Gone With The Wind," all six Jane Austen protagonists, Lady Mary Crawley of "Downton," and Rose DeWitt Bukater of "Titanic" (yes, I had to Google that name). There’s a lot to like here.
Two hundred years in the future, the United States is unrecognizable. Everything runs on compact nuclear fusion machines. China, now known as the Eastern Empire, has conquered the Western half of the country. Race, religion, and gender no longer matter – class is king. A strict class system defines society: the wealthy, cultured gentry govern the cities and rule the lower classes. At the bottom of the totem pole are the Rootless, descendants of rebels, forever condemned to pay for their forefathers’ mutiny by handling raw nuclear charges. It’s a dirty job – and the Rootless are meant to die doing it.
Landry Park is the crown jewel of the vast, lavish Kansas City estates. As heir to the august family fortune, Madeline Landry has a predetermined future: make her debut, marry a gentry man, manage the estate, bear heirs to secure it. Bookish Madeline loves Landry Park but chafes against her father’s rigid expectations. She dreams of a different future: avoid social functions (good luck, debutante), study at a university, and only then return to the estate and marry.
She also struggles to justify the contrast between her opulent lifestyle and the misery of the Rootless. So when she falls in with handsome, well-heeled David Dana, a charming aristocrat who secretly assists the Rootless in their struggle to rebalance society, she must make a decision. Tensions between Rootless and gentry are perilously high, and Madeline must choose between loyalty and equality, duty and love.
Hagen, a librarian, has a deft touch with character development and a knack for literary details. I could just imagine her thought process: “Are you a bookworm? Here’s a rolling library ladder and antiquated book collection. Madeline loves classics – enjoy the Arthurian tales! Read 'Gone With The Wind'? I’ll name these characters Stuart and Tarleton!”
The early chapters introduce the global backstory fairly well, no small task when you have two centuries of bloodshed and scientific advancement to weave together. Yet Hagen seems to stumble once or twice in painfully noticeable passages.
Take, for example, this early exchange between Madeline and her gardener. We were rolling along nicely until this patch of dialogue kicked in the door and bellowed, “Look how unbelievably SUBTLE I am!”
Says the gardener: “Mind your pretty gray cat, if you will. There’s a big brown tom that’s taken a fancy to her whenever she steps out for a walk. I wouldn’t want you to have a litter of brown kittens running about, spoiling that pretty thing’s pedigree.”
Madeline replies, “I don’t believe any tomcat is a match for my Morgana.”
My goodness, I wonder if we’re supposed to make a connection there! Fortunately, Hagen redeems her prose quickly with luscious phrases like “callow blandishments” and evocative moments like this description of an evening ball:
“All the Kansas City families were here, and the women wore their most expensive gowns – all low-cut bodices and seed pearls that released the smell of jasmine when they moved.”
A beautiful flood of visual, tactile, and olfactory details. Later, on a midnight sleigh ride in the mountains – the impropriety of which is never mentioned – Hagen slips in this gem:
“The night was absolutely, infinitely clear, and, out here in the country, the stars were so numerous that they almost seemed wasteful. Wanton. As if someone had carelessly spilled a purse of jewels on the road.”
As the climax approaches, Madeline’s thoughts return to her home in all its sun-dappled glory. She wonders, “Who would Madeline Landry be without the observatory and mausoleum and wide green lawns?” It’s a concise encapsulation of her dilemma. She’s up against the heaven of Landry Park, the hell of the Rootless, and the earth of indecision.
Delicacies like that, with a smart, easy-to-relate-to heroine, make "Landry Park" a light and enjoyable read.
Katie Ward Beim-Esche is a Monitor contributor.