Summary from Goodreads:
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.
First of all: Persuasion is my absolute favorite Austen novel. Would pay good money to get Ciaran Hinds to read Wentworth’s letter aloud over and over (the movie fades Hinds’s and Amanda Root’s voice-overs back and forth and I’m not a fan of that, Hinds only please). Any Persuasion re-telling churned out of the Austen fan-fiction machine gets extra side-eye and skepticism from me.
Second: I have an extra-helping of skeptical for retellings that chain themselves to the original plot in lock-step. (There are retellings out there for Pride and Prejudice to which you can set your watch.) Some of the best retellings/modernizations/sequels take what they need from the bones of the story and jettison what no longer applies to twenty-first century novels.
By the Book was recommended to me by author (and bookseller) Sarah Prineas, so I decided to take a chance on it. In this setting, Anne Elliot, lonely, over-looked, middle daughter of a class-obsessed, cash-poor baronet, has been transformed into Anne Corey, an over-worked, under-appreciated English professor trying to get a tenure-track position at her liberal arts college Fairfax. Captain Wentworth, gallant naval captain rising through the ranks via his success in the Napoleonic Wars, is now Adam Martinez, a former undocumented child immigrant from Guatemala who has risen through the ranks of collegiate administration to become one of the youngest college presidents in the United States. He is Anne’s ultimate boss…and her ex-fiancé (Anne had got some less-than-stellar life advice from her advisor, Dr. Russell – cue Lady Russell – about not having a serious relationship in grad school). Entering from stage right is our Mr. Elliot – in this iteration rock star author Richard Forbes Chasen, very sexy, British, and successful, who has just taken the job of writer-in-residence at Fairfax (he gets to give a JFranz burn, and I laughed forever).
These are the bones of Austen’s original: a hero and heroine with a second-chance romance and a bit of a villain. And this is all that By the Book needs. It is a sweet and charming campus novel about a professor who is lonely and uncertain in their job prospects. It does not lock-step its plot to the original, so if you are very familiar with Persuasion (like me) you won’t quite guess the path to the denouement (y’all, if you can’t guess how this book generally ends you need to read more Austen and romance novels). Austen fans will enjoy all the little bits pulled out of Persuasion and used to flesh out the plot. Sonneborn even borrows a little bit of Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. But if you have never read Persuasion, you don’t need it to enjoy By the Book.
Anne is our protagonist throughout this book. We feel all her indecision, uncertainty, and frustration at being a single woman trying to get some respect and job security in a really, really tight job market (there is a rejection letter for her book that almost made me punch my iPad). And maybe also find a boyfriend because loneliness is the worst sometimes. I had a good chuckle every time Anne and her work-husband, Henry James-teaching professor Larry, had to deal with their tone-deaf department chair because lack of insight in administrators is a real thing. Speaking of Larry, I really liked his character. He’s an adaptation of Captain Bennick, the grief-stricken, poetry-obsessed friend of Wentworth. As Anne’s best friend, Larry is a hopelessly romantic gay man who becomes embroiled in an illicit affair with the hottest actor of the moment who is starring in an obvious Twilight-esque teen movie where Jane Eyre is a vampire (it’s hilarious, I’m not kidding). He’s always got a good quip, some timely text emojis, and an unironic love of a terrible mash-up movie (based on an uneven genre mash-up novel) even while stating he doesn’t read novels published after 1920 (see also: I laughed forever at this, too). I felt so much for him at the end of this book.
I’ve been reading some reviews of By the Book that don’t quite feel the romance or tension between Anne and Adam. This may be a fair criticism. Anne and Adam don’t spend a lot of time together (especially alone) in the book, particularly compared to genre romance novels so expectations may not be met on the page. But, in my opinion, this makes sense in the end especially given that Adam is the college president where Anne is very much his subordinate; no one with even half of Adam or Anne’s intelligence would jeopardize their academic career to get a leg up with the boss. This goes triple for women and people of color, which Anne and Adam are. Adam also makes a nice speech at one point that brings up plot-specific reasons for not trying to get with Anne once he’s at Fairfax, which I won’t spoil here. In addition, this separation between characters is exactly what happens in Persuasion. The only person who flirts with Anne Elliot is Mr. Elliot, making everyone, including Wentworth, believe that those two will marry.
I really enjoyed By the Book. I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly the update in plot was handled and I loved the warm-fuzzy feeling I got while reading (I love second-chance romances in general). I think this is also a good entry in the “campus novel” genre, because I recognized a lot of real-world things that happen on college campuses (raise your hand if you’ve ever been “volunteered” for institutional fundraising drives?). A definite recommend.
Comment: I do not like the US cover. It says “charming novel about young love set in a bookshop in the French countryside” not “campus novel about tenure-track professors at a liberal arts college within driving distance of Beverly Hills/Los Angeles.” Does anyone even ride a bicycle in this book? (There’s a motorcycle, but I don’t remember a bicycle.)
By the Book will be available on February 6.
Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss after someone whose taste I trust told me they thought I might like it. I’ll probably buy a paper copy to put with the Austen collection.