Persuasion

Does everyone introduced to Jane Austen invariably compare everything she writes back to Pride and Prejudice? I’m sure some don’t, but the task felt impossible to me. Austen’s last book, Persuasion was only the second of her works I’d ever read (after P&P of course). While I certainly enjoyed it, it must be said that our heroine Anne Elliot is no Elizabeth Bennett. Our hero Frederick Wentworth no Mr. Darcy.

When Anne was 19, she fell in love with a dashing young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick proposes and Anne happily accepts until she breaks the news to her status-obsessed family who disapprove of Wentworth’s low rank. Heartbroken, Anne ends the relationship and when the novel picks up, it’s eight years later and Anne’s still single and fast approaching 19th-century spinsterhood. Her feelings for Wentworth stay buried deep until news comes that he’s back in town and she’s forced to confront him along with her old feelings.

Themes of persuasion (obviously) and repression run throughout the book, as do examinations of class and social constructs, but the same can be said of most of Austen’s work. I’m perhaps selling her a little short here, but these just weren’t the most interesting angles for me.

I was freely carried away by the story the same way I am when watching a romantic comedy–where I become enraptured in the tale and the question isn’t if our couple will be together, but simply when. That’s where my enjoyment came from. With every turn of the page, I knew I was just a little bit closer to the payoff, to the love story’s triumphant conclusion.

In movies, all the great rom-com’s share one essential quality: charisma. The two leads have chemistry and a spark together, as well as their own individual charm. When there’s no spark and when the performances fall flat, so does the story, no matter how well it’s written. In a way, this ended up being my main issue with Persuasion.

When Anne represses her true feelings she does so willingly as an act of self-preservation so there’s none of Elizabeth’s firey wit. Instead, Anne is prim, introspective, and even has a bit of a hang-dog mentality that kept her from endearing herself to me in quite the same way Elizabeth did. I still felt for her and was wholeheartedly on her side, but it was harder to see anything of myself in her.

Similarly, Wentworth lacked Darcy’s air of mystery. His intentions and emotions were still hard to read, but this ended up frustrating me more than intriguing me. I wouldn’t call him a poor love interest by any means, but something was missing for him to really make an impression on me.

Ultimately, Persuasion is more of Jane Austen doing what Jane Austen does best: lambasting British society while telling a love story. But it didn’t stick with me the way Pride and Prejudice did and I didn’t encounter the same joy while reading it. I originally read the book a couple months ago and my memory is already hazy. I recall enjoying it, but not to what extent. Because of that, I don’t know if I can honestly recommend it as it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

I don’t mean to overstate my love of Pride and Prejudice either, though. I liked the book quite a bit, and it marked the first time I reread something I hated in high school only to end up completely changing my mind about it. But I wouldn’t put either of these books on any kind of favorites list.

I’m still eager to try reading more of Austen’s work, but only time will tell if any of it is capable of having a more profound impact on me.

Persuasion is a solid read and worth the time, but I wouldn’t bother bumping it to the top of your To Read list any time soon.

Eleanor & Park

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You don’t have to read YA fiction to notice the trend that’s been going strong since Harry Potter. First came the boy wizard, and then came Twilight, Eragon, Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments. Even Hunger Games doesn’t stray too far from the path in its eschewing of reality for a horrific dystopian future. So when buzz about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park started drifting my way, I noticed. Because what sets this book apart is that its title characters are, well, normal. They don’t have special powers. They’re not “the chosen ones.” They don’t save a nation from unspeakable forces. Eleanor and Park do something that felt much more magical than any of that—they fall in love.

Told from its title characters’ points of view in alternating chapters, Eleanor & Park explores the lives of two wayward teens in 1986 middle America and their blossoming relationship.

I purposefully chose to read the book in September, in the heart of back-to-school season, in the midst of my annual rewatching of My So-Called Life. I set the scene for myself because I had a feeling that the book would just fit into my heart better that way. And it did.

I found myself lingering over pages in this lightning quick read, rationing chapters, hesitating before turning the page, just so I’d get to spend a little bit longer with it. Just so I wouldn’t finish it too fast. Which, of course, is exactly what I did with all of my favorite books in high school. Eleanor & Park felt more honest than almost any other portrayal of teenage love I can think of. When I finished it, I wished I could have gone back in time and found this book when I was still 16.

It’s a supremely easy read. I don’t think I’d call it groundbreaking, either. It’s just refreshing. It’s like a comfortable old friend. Just seriously consider picking it up the next time you’re in the mood to remember high school without all the bullshit of having to actually be in high school.

[originally posted October 30, 2013]