First, yes, I am reviewing another queer retelling of Persuasion, and I feel like everyone is probably going to ask me which one is better, but I’m not going to answer that just yet.
For the uninitiated, Undue Influence is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in upstate New York with a detour to the Hamptons. Eight years ago, Adam Elliot chose his family and friend over the guy he loved, Freddy Wentworth. The thing is that his family never deserved that much faith and love from Adam and are pretty much terrible people. Meanwhile, over those eight years, Freddy has become a celebrity chef with his own restaurant and TV show with his best friend. And the Elliots have lost their vineyard and home to foreclosure, which Freddy’s sister buys. To complicate things further, Freddy returns home to help his best friend recover from the death of his wife. And well, neither Adam nor Freddy ever got over each other.
One of the hardest parts about reviewing a good book is that I don’t often have anything substantive to say. Hurray! Well done, Jenny Holiday! It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and the ending, well, *chef’s kiss.*
I think the really interesting thing about Undue Influence is how it really does hit most of the plot beats from Persuasion, but it doesn’t feel tired. A reader familiar with the source material might go “oh, we’re going to get this next,” but even when I did, the familiarity was a comfort if anything, it never plodded through the beats as if it was trying to hit each mark. (Here comes a figure skating comparison.) You how with some figure skaters, you see them being technically good, but there’s no artistry to it? And then someone stunning like Kristi Yamaguchi or Michelle Kwan or Yuzuru Hanyu skates and you can almost forget that there’s more than artistry at work? Undue Influence does all the work, but you never notice that it’s work, it feels effortless.
Something I want to pause and reflect on is the fact that Freddy is bisexual, and he’s casually bisexual. And by “casually bisexual,” I mean that it’s never an issue, he just is and no one freaks out over it, Adam never criticizes that aspect of Freddy. If you’re wondering why I mention this, it’s because usually I have to lay out in detail the biphobia in a book. But Undue Influence and Perfect Day both accept their characters for who they are and never pick at their sexualities or the sexualities of others. And we so rarely celebrate that. These two charming books are biphobia-free and I love them.
Now, for the comparison, I’ve provided a little chart below. The biggest difference between Undue Influence and Perfect Day is that Perfect Day really leaned into Joshua’s (Anne stand-in) vulnerabilities and how the community he lives in does not attempt to understand or truly appreciate him. This is not a mark against Undue Influence, it’s really just a different reading experience. The world Adam lives in knows him mostly and doesn’t really abuse his kindness (except his family). Reading Perfect Day was a very emotional experience for me, while reading Undue Influence was easier somehow. Neither is better, they’re both refreshingly different.
Also, both books are lovely and you should read them so we can talk about them.