This modern teenage version of Persuasion begins with an interesting parallel to Sir Walter Eliot’s studying of the Baronetage: “Some people are like a venereal disease.” Jared Steele, musical phenom, is our protagonist’s ex, and she is having trouble listening to him sing on the radio. In southern Connecticut, the “much-whispered but never-confirmed” truth is that Claire is the subject of his songs. Best friend Kristen does her best to distract Claire from Jared’s music and to focus on her own. Claire’s band, Stabbing Shakespeare, does well with the “Jared Steele sucks” theme but not much else—yet.
The cast of characters parallels Persuasion decently but incompletely. Claire’s mother has been gone a year, and she has a sister, April, who seems more conventional but a little too whiny for our taste (Mary Musgrove, of course). In a span of five minutes, her sister drops the news that they are moving, and her father, that he has invested her “college money in a fun that has since run dry.” He is being followed around by his preposterously made-up secretary, Nikki (Mrs. Clay), though he no longer has a business needing her assistance. Her dad is Sir Walter Eliot, and they need to “retrench” by staying with family in New Hampshire (while their new condo at home gets its kitchen renovated). He seems as bad as the original, but I’ll leave you to discover what surprises he provides for us and for his daughter. Eliot Beach serves as Bath.
Claire describes falling in love with Jared. He does sound pretty perfect for her (and pretty Captain Wentworth to us)—teaching her guitar and praising her musical talent, volunteering with underprivileged kids, and soon, writing songs with her. She broke up with him because her dying mother asked her to. That kind of leaves Lady Russell out of the story, unless we consider Kristen a sort of Lady Russell figure in that she is the only one who really knows about Jared. Cousins Lisa and Hannah are the Musgrove girls (Louisa and Henrietta), and they don’t know the history between Jared and Claire.
Claire is a disciplined heroine, stopping herself from thinking two days in a row about Jared, seeking a job so she doesn’t take out her father’s flirtatious secretary Nikki in a “murderous rage,” and not complaining about having “to give up [her] spot in Brown’s freshman class.” In Eliot Beach, Claire gets a job in a small grocery store. Her father snobbishly disciplines Claire for getting a “menial job” he says is “beneath” her, while he seems content doing nothing at all. On her first day at work, Claire gobbles down some fruit for lunch, and then, bam, stares smack into familiar blue eyes . . . Jared is there, in the market, where she least expects to see him.
This young lady, like Anne Elliot, is quite aware of her own heart and actively working to understand her reactions to the world around her. She feels he wronged her by writing about her badly in his songs; he feels she wronged him by choosing her snobbish family over him. Though she thinks she’s “supposed to be furious at Jared,” she instead recognizes that she cares more than she should what happens to him, so she tries to “stuff” those feelings “into the darkest, coldest recess” of her soul. Claire’s dad, meanwhile, has changed his tune with respect to a young woman going out with Jared, which angers Claire, who had to sneak around. Claire gets roped into attending a concert—on a double date with her ex and her cousin. Before that, though, she confronts her dad about his expectations and treatment of her and of Jared. She is learning how to speak up for herself and for her choices.
In her effort “to prove” herself, Claire enters a local battle of the bands. Her journey will include transitioning from “mere musician” to “performer,” but first she needs the confidence “to perform on [her] own.” At this point, however, her favorite Janis Joplin song is “Piece of My Heart,” which she has made her “anti-Jared anthem,” and one of her bands’ songs includes these lyrics: “I’m stabbing Shakespeare, burning Austen in the fire I’m strangling Cinderella, and all the other dirty liars.” She has some distance to go before she can forgive, understand, and be happy.
Jared is really a nice guy and, in fact, has trouble dealing “with all the public attention” he gets as a Grammy-winning musician. After all the tension between them, Claire at least allows Jared to make her laugh with an inside joke, and she laughs so hard her “stomach hurts.” I could feel the tension break. Shortly thereafter, Claire realizes that she agrees with other people’s demands too often, and maybe she “should have held firm” instead of breaking under her “parents’ pressure and dump[ing] Jared.” There is no clear Lady Russell figure, but she’s clearly discussing the power of persuasion.
Cousin Lisa is a lesbian and a sophomore at UNH. Her best friend Mike is hosting a party. (He turns out to be Jared’s friend, so he could be Harville or Benwick.) At the party, she meets Zach Stevens (Mr. Eliot), who smells like beer and makes her temporarily forget Jared. (Link I’m not sure works: Hannah is smoking a lot; what’s the equivalent in Persuasion? Taking unnecessary risks? ) On another outing, Hannah ends up flirting with Mike instead of Jared (so Mike must be Captain Benwick). But of course that’s followed by a fall, and Claire quickly takes charge, like Anne before her, to get Hannah home safely. Meanwhile, April is researching how to poison the Mrs. Clay character.
Now at this point I will say I was confused by the choice: the Hannah character should be Henrietta, and it should be Lisa, Louisa, who falls down, and then falls for Captain Benwick, but that gets changed for no clear reason. Captain Harville could be any of these guys. Are the aunt and uncle supposed to be the model of a good marriage, and therefore the Crofts? They offer Claire advice and take care of her, but they aren’t linked to Jared in any way (though they know about their history, so maybe that counts?). There’s also no real Elizabeth Elliot, but no one really misses her. I kind of missed Charles Musgrove and the Musgroves in general—maybe they’re the aunt and uncle? That makes more sense, but how can you retell Persuasion without the Crofts? Charles Hayter could be Hannah’s supposedly gay friend at the start of the story, which is certainly a modern way to handle it, except that she, or at least Henrietta, ends up with him in Persuasion. Besides Persuasion confusion, there are also a couple grammar errors that detracted a bit from the fun of this 2013 creation. One example: “He doesn’t want to have to chauffeur April or I anywhere.”
Claire is pretty delightful, but she doesn’t always make perfect decisions, even apart from pronoun case. She reacts badly, for instance, to her band’s news that, after this gig, they “just don’t think it’s going to work out,” telling them that even that gig isn’t worth their time and realizing “everyone else gets to move forward” except her. At this point, the old struggle we knew early on she’d have to fight emerges. She believes she doesn’t “give off the same kind of aura” as a natural performer like Jared, so a solo journey is not an option. On another occasion, when it’s time to make out with Zach, she tries to get herself drunk enough not to be repulsed. That is not okay. Worse, she plans to drive home. For such a smart girl, she really fails on every count here.
Claire has moments of great maturity, too. She defies her father’s demand that she quit her job with no notice—and Jared hears it, so he learns she has learned when to be persuaded and when not. She, meanwhile, learns his real feelings about Hannah and what it is actually like being a star. When Claire catches Zach conspiring with Nikki, she makes two strong moves. The way Claire lets Zach know she knows is awesome here: via text message. He asks her out; she says no, but Nikki’s free; he says who is that again; and she says, you know, the one “whose mouth your tongue was in last night.” No way to misread that! Later, armed with the Nikki-Zach photos, Claire decides that her younger sister “needs a better role model in her life” than what she has, so Claire chooses to accept that job and not share the photos with her father.
The story climaxes with two shifts: 1) in the relationship between Jared and Claire, and 2) in Claire’s sense of herself as a performer. With respect to the first, it’s obvious to one of their favorite singers in a few minutes—and the reader, in a bit more time—that these two belong together. In a beautiful scene on the beach, they build each other up, each targeting the other’s dip in confidence with exactly the right evidence to prove they should have confidence. There is some lovely writing here, including Jared’s comment: “Your band didn’t break up, because you are the band.” Words she needs to hear—and to believe before she can take the critical step of performing alone.
Open mike night is exactly what the reader would want it to be—and more. And, just like in Persuasion, now that Jared Steele is doing so well, our heroine’s dad is happy to discuss his connection to the young man. There is a beautiful ending, followed by a kind acknowledgement of author Tracey Martin’s eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Baker, who made her “believe [she] should give this writing thing a chance.” You’ll be glad she did.