Review: By the Book – Julia Sonneborn

Review: By the Book – Julia SonnebornBy the Book
by Julia Sonneborn
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication Date: February 6, 2018
Genres: Romance
Pages: 384
Source: NetGalley

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

My rating: One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

An English professor struggling for tenure discovers that her ex-fiancé has just become the president of her college—and her new boss—in this whip-smart modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion.

Anne Corey is about to get schooled.

An English professor in California, she’s determined to score a position on the coveted tenure track at her college. All she’s got to do is get a book deal, snag a promotion, and boom! She’s in. But then Adam Martinez—her first love and ex-fiancé—shows up as the college’s new president.

Anne should be able to keep herself distracted. After all, she’s got a book to write, an aging father to take care of, and a new romance developing with the college’s insanely hot writer-in-residence. But no matter where she turns, there’s Adam, as smart and sexy as ever. As the school year advances and her long-buried feelings begin to resurface, Anne begins to wonder whether she just might get a second chance at love.

Funny, smart, and full of heart, this modern ode to Jane Austen’s classic explores what happens when we run into the demons of our past...and when they turn out not to be so bad, after all.

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I’m unapologetically a huge Jane Austen fan, and while P&P will always be my favorite, Persuasion is a close second, because I absolutely adore second-chance romances.  While this isn’t my favorite Austen retelling, or even my favorite Persuasion one, this was a quite enjoyable and really well done modern version.  This is going to be pretty spoilerific, because I’m assuming anyone reading this knows the basic plot of Persuasion.  While it’s certainly not a requirement to have read Persuasion to enjoy this book, I think you’d miss a lot of the fun.

“How could I explain to her that this—this office filled with books, this job at Fairfax, this life of the mind—had cost me more than I’d ever expected? I hadn’t dated anyone in years, my student debt was the size of a mortgage, and my job could easily be eliminated at a moment’s notice.”

Anne, is, perhaps, not exactly happy with her life.  While she’s a professor at a small liberal arts college in southern California, she’s got a ridiculous amount of student debt, an uncertain career future if she can’t get her manuscript published, screwed-up family relationships, and a nonexistent love life.  Still, the start of a new school year is something to be happy about – until she finds out that the new college president is her ex-fiancé Adam.  Adam seems to have it all together – a prestigious job that caps off a so-far excellent career, handsome looks, and a cute dog – while Anne, well, “she was only Anne,” to quote Austen.  Hurt by his seeming inability to recognize her, Anne takes up with the charming Rick, a writer-in-residence.  The reader, of course, knows the relationship is doomed, but I was amused by the ways Ms. Sonneborn found to display his unworthiness, including the fact that he specifically tells Anne that he doesn’t like Austen – he calls her books “oldfashioned chick lit,” while Anne’s favorite book is Persuasion.  I found this a bit tongue-in-cheek but it gave the characters permission to use some of the more out of the modern vernacular lines.

Besides Anne’s romantic life, there’s a few other subplots: her BFF Larry’s on-the-down-low romance with an up and coming actor (in a Jane Eyre with zombies movie, no less), her and her sister’s attempts to cope with her father’s worsening health, her rocky relationship with her father and sister, and her need to get her manuscript published so she can get tenure.  I thought all the subplots worked amazingly well to reinforce the points of the main plot, though I will admit that I adored Larry and any scene he was in.  There’s some particularly hilarious emoji conversations that I absolutely died over.  I mean, look at this scene from early in the book, when they’re discussing Adam:

“’Boo. That’s too bad. I don’t like it when people are too perfect. What is it with this guy? He’s got the fancy degrees, the high-powered CV, and he’s good-looking, too! I mean, why do some people get all the cookies? I want some cookies, too!’
‘Larry, you’ve got plenty of cookies on your own,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘I mean, give me a break, you’re a tenured professor with a PhD from Harvard. What more could you want?’
‘Oh, a personal life, maybe. Or some more hair would be nice,’ Larry said, pretending to pout. ‘I just want more cookies.’”

I adored the setting of this quasi-New England college town in southern California, the ridiculousness of departmental meetings and alumni fundraising (GO WOLVERINES!!!), and all the other details that go along with being a professor a small liberal arts college.  What I really loved, though, was the ways Ms. Sonneborn found to modernize Persuasion.

In the original novel, Anne was persuaded against marrying Capt. Wentworth because he had no money and no family connections, and therefore wasn’t a suitable match for someone of her stature.  In this novel, Anne’s persuaded against the marriage, partially, by her respected advisor, who in a sort of annoying backwards view of feminism makes her believe that if she marries, she’ll have to give up her dreams of graduate school and being a professor, and settle instead for – GASP – being a mother or kindergarten teacher.  I thought this was a masterful way of updating the reasons against the relationship, because I’m sure any woman alive today can sympathize with the dueling desires of having a career and a family, and feeling like they’re making a mediocre showing at both.  I also adored the updated version of the reconciliation, with Adam overhearing Anne talking about not giving up on love, even when a relationship is in the trash, and the letter Adam writes her where he finally declares his feelings for her.  I’ll certainly admit to crying when he breaks out the famous “I have loved none but you” line.

I’m still crunching over the fact that they made Adam, basically, an illegal immigrant – his mother moved them to America from Guatemala when he was a child – so he is, in essence a DREAMer.  It felt a bit too politically on-the-nose, but I do admit that it’s a genius way to try to portray the differences in standing between the two families that would have been more easily understood in regency England.

“’I keep wishing I could go back in time and change things . . . that maybe everything would have turned out differently if I’d just paid attention more, listened, understood the signs. Do you know what I mean?’
‘I do,’ Adam said. He looked troubled.
‘I don’t know why I do this,’ I said, laughing bitterly. ‘I can’t help myself. I must be a masochist.’”

My one big complaint was that in the original novel, when they meet again, Capt. Wentworth is still angry with Anne for the broken proposal years ago.  In this version, it’s obvious – to the reader, at least – that Adam still has feelings for Anne, and things just conspire against them having it all out in a conversation.  I think there was still a satisfactory amount of tension without that, and I can understand why Ms. Sonneborn would chose to change that – the way it works in the original book always made me feel that Anne needed to “earn” Capt. Wentworth’s love – and this way the blame of breaking of the engagement seems to fall equally on Anne and Adam.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and hilarious retelling of Persuasion.  If you’re not all up on your Austen, then I think this would still be some pretty fun chick lit.  There were some bits left unresolved, so I’m hoping for a sequel starring Larry!

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