One of the Dashwood daughters is smart, down-to-earth and sensible. The other is wildly romantic and sensitive.
And in a Jane Austen novel, you can guess that there are going to be romantic problems aplenty for both of them -- along with the usual entailment issues, love triangles, sexy bad boys and societal scandals. "Sense and Sensibility" is a quietly clever, romantic little novel that builds up to a dramatic peak on Marianne's romantic troubles, while also quietly exploring Elinor's struggles.
When Mr. Dashwood dies, his entire estate is entailed to his weak son John and snotty daughter-in-law Fanny. His widow and her three daughters are left with little money and no home.
Over the next few weeks, the eldest daughter Elinor begins to fall for Fanny's studious, quiet brother Edward... but being the down-to-earth one, she knows she hasn't got a chance. Her impoverished family soon relocates to Devonshire, where a tiny cottage is being rented to them by one of Mrs. Dashwood's relatives -- and Marianne soon attracts the attention of two men. One is the quiet, much older Colonel Brandon, and the other is the dashing and romantic Willoughby.
But things begin to spiral out of control when Willoughby seems about to propose to Marianne... only to abruptly break off his relationship with her. And during a trip to London, both Elinor and Marianne discover devastating facts about the men they are in love with -- both of them are engaged to other women. And after disaster strikes the Dashwood family, both the sisters will discover what real love is about...
At its heart, "Sense and Sensibility" is about two girls with completely opposite personalities, and the struggle to find love when you're either too romantic or too reserved for your own good. As well as, you know, the often-explored themes in Austen's novels -- impoverished women's search for love and marriage, entailment, mild scandal, and the perils of falling for a sexy bad boy who cares more for money than for true love... assuming he even knows what true love is.
Austen's formal style takes on a somewhat more melancholy flavor in this book, with lots of powerful emotions and vivid splashes of prose ("The wind roared round the house, and the rain beat against the windows"); and she introduces a darker tone near the end. Still, there's a slight humorous tinge to her writing, especially when she's gently mocking Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood's melodrama ("They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it").
And Marianne and Elinor make excellent dual heroines for this book -- that still love and cherish each other, even though their polar opposite personalities frequently clash. What's more, they each have to become more like the other before they can find happiness. There's also a small but solid supporting cast -- the hunting-obsessed Sir John, the charming Willoughby (who has some nasty stuff in his past), the emotional Mrs. Dashwood, and the gentle, quiet Colonel Brandon, who shows his love for Marianne in a thousand small ways.
"Sense and Sensibility" is an emotionally powerful, beautifully written tale about two very different sisters, and the rocky road to finding a lasting love. Not as striking as "Pride and Prejudice," but still a deserving classic.