Though all of Jane Austen's books are unique in their own right, "Northanger Abbey" stands out from the rest as being the closest Austen gets to outright comedy. It is famous for being a parody of the overwrought gothic romances that were popular in her day (the imagination boggles at what she might have achieved had the Twilight series been available to her), but Ms. Austen is not content with mere parody. In a brilliant twist, the parody becomes the thing that is parodied. With a battle between the forces of good and evil and a young woman's soul at stake, "Northanger Abby" IS a gothic romance, but it has been stripped of the gloomy trappings and ridiculously evil villains. In its place is the banal, subtle, everyday type of evil which is all the more terrible and dangerous for its ordinary quality. This may not sound like much of a comedy, but Ms. Austen deftly alternates between the seriousness of her subject and the satire. The results are often hilarious and had me laughing out loud."Northanger Abbey" tells the story of Catherine Morland, a young lady on the verge of adulthood who is obsessed with gothic romances. When we meet her, Catherine is about to embark on a journey to Bath with a wealthy friend of the family. Naive, impressionable, and aching to live out the adventures she reads, Catherine is the daughter of a churchman with a comfortable income and a large, loving family. At 17, this is her first excursion from her home and first introduction to society. In Bath, she attends balls, the theatre, the baths, and meets a number of people, including Isabella Thorpe, her brother John, and the Tilney family; Henry, Eleanor, Captain Frederick Tilney, and their father, the General. Among them, competing interests and designs for Catherine are played out and she, on her own for the first time in her life, must learn who to trust. Isabella and Catherine quickly strike up a friendship based mostly on their mutual love of gothic novels, while John tries to impress her with what he considers to be gentlemanly airs. These two, in a manner reminiscent of the Crawfords of Mansfield Park, conspire to win Catherine for John. Though not as malicious as the Crawfords, John and Isabelle are nevertheless manipulative as they try to seal the match. Initially, Catherine is protected by her naivete, being completely clueless about the game they are playing. Slowly, though, she begins to realize that the Thorpes are not all she took them for. As always in an Austen book, manners reveal the underlying character of a person, and the manners of John and Isabelle betray a shallowness and selfishness that true nobility would eschew. As Catherine learns who the Thorpes are, she takes the first of several important steps toward growing up and seeing the world for what it really is. She begins to spend more time with the Tilneys, particularly Henry and Eleanor. Well mannered, honest and reserved, yet somehow still playful, the Tilneys genuinely are what the Thorpes pretend to be. As their relationship deepens, Catherine is invited to spend time at their estate, Northanger Abbey. She accepts and accompanies them, a move which is seen as a rejection of the Thorpes. John takes the move personally and reacts vengefully by lying to General Tilney about Catherine. This lie will threaten a budding romance between Henry and Catherine, who are both unaware of his machinations. The Tilneys, with Catherine, return to Northanger, and here the parody goes into overdrive. Dark and foreboding at night with locked rooms, mysterious passages, and cryptic messages, Northanger Abbey is everything Catherine's overstimulated imagination could ask. She sees mystery and potential evil in every cupboard and sheet covered cabinet. Her fears and suspicions are aroused and heightened much to her delight. Here is the adventure she has longed for since she began reading the likes of "The Mystery of Udolpho". In the light of day, however, the cupboards and cabinets are empty, the mysterious passages lead to ordinary places, and the cryptic letters turn out to be laundry lists. As she discovered with the Thorpes, Northanger Abbey is not all it appears. She is strangely disappointed, but this discovery is another step in her growth from a child to an adult. It is not the last, and the disappointment does not yet put an end to her overactive imagination, for there is another mystery lurking in the halls of Northanger, a real mystery regarding the death of Henry and Eleanor's mother. As Catherine investigates Mrs. Tilney's death, she discovers that there is real evil in the world, but it is unlike anything she has read, and it is even found in her own imagination. The lies of John Thorpe will haunt her, and she will face shame, humiliation, and real danger at the hands of the General. But with the aid of the true friends she found in Eleanor and Henry Tilney, Catherine will finally put aside the childish thrills of the gothic romances of her youth and be prepared to take her place in the real world as a real woman. "Northanger Abbey" was a delightful read for many reasons. Catherine Morland may be one of the sweetest characters that Ms. Austen created. She is kind, loving, trusting, and completely without guile. Her chief flaws are that she is too impressionable and given to flights of fancy, both of which tend to lead her astray. She has all the makings of a fine woman, and the reader is pleased to watch as her potential is realized. In the Tilneys and the Thorpes, Ms. Austen found perfect vehicles to illustrate the forces competing for the soul of Catherine. The Thorpes are superficially fascinating and attractive, but their beauty ends there. Henry, with his sweet but sensible sister Eleanor, provide Catherine with the example she needs of what it means to be a noble man and woman. Henry Tilney is a model gentleman without being an unrealistic ideal. He, too, has his flaws that he must overcome in order to take his proper place in the world. I have remarked in other reviews on the beauty and excellence of Ms. Austen's writing, so I will not belabor the point here, except to say she does not disappoint in the least. Any fan of Jane Austen will be thoroughly satisfied with "Northanger Abbey". Any newcomer will be enchanted. Just remember that her books are as unique as the characters themselves. Though they share many common themes, no two Austen novels are alike. That is part of why I enjoy them so much.