I really, really like Jane Austen retellings. Particularly if they retain the blend of humor and drama that makes me like Austen in the first place – in the battle of literary ladies, I’m firmly Team Jane. No Bronte sister can breach this fortress of certainty. So getting a new Austen interpretation – of Persuasion, no less, one of the less-tackled plots! – was a delight. Even more delightful is the moment when the book manages to SELF-REFERENCE being a Persuasion retelling without it even being awkward. WELL-PLAYED.
Reading this book feels like wrapping yourself up in one of those extremely plush Sherpa blankets and curling up on a leather couch in a sunroom where the windows look out onto the kind of day that looks absolutely beautiful but is definitely too cold to go out in so you’re making the absolute right choice to stay inside and read. That might be an overly specific metaphor.
But for real, this book is cozy and comfortable to read even when it’s taking on serious stuff – there’s PTSD, there’s neglect, Major Childhood Issues on all sides, plus some of the truly excellent mother-daughter make-you-cry scenes that Sonali Dev is just, like, universally amazing at. Even as the story plunges back and forth in time – in different POVs, even! – it’s still so easy to read. Every setting is so lushly, gorgeously described that it made me feel guilty about my own writing and its inadequacies, but the settings are put together so deftly that you never feel like the narrative voice is lingering on descriptive stuff. This is what literature SHOULD feel like. If Madame Bovary had read like this, my English degree would have been a lot less painful to obtain, is all I’m saying.
Ashna and Rico have careers, backgrounds, and lifestyles that are wildly incomprehensible to yours truly (listen, my suburban stay-at-home ass has no business on a football pitch OR in mountainous palaces OR in LA, let’s be real), but they’re incredibly relatable people. The book starts off with an examination of Ashna’s panic attacks, but we don’t get into their root causes – and neither does Ashna – until some personal growth happens.
My absolute favorite thing about this book is the way that both Rico and Ashna explore their own traumas, willingly or unwillingly. They’ve both had a LOT go on in their lives, and both have reached a point in their adulthood where it’s time for some self-awareness before they can move forward. We get to learn about their past slowly, and the threads of their stories are woven carefully into the entire book. There’s bits that make sense to begin with but make even more sense later – just as they do when you’re exploring your own mental stuff. Watching Ashna, in particular, learn to accommodate her own trauma and gently begin the process of making needed changes in her life was really rewarding. Almost everyone I know in their thirties is going through some self-evaluation, rewriting the mental scripts they thought they understood, and this was a really relatable thing to read.
And of course, you’re not going to get a book review out of me without some squee-ing about family. Ashna’s fam is delightful, her aunt and cousins in particular. They bring a lot of love (and the necessary lighthearted moments) to a story that could be painful if it wasn’t approached with care. And Rico! Let’s talk about Rico and how much he adores Ashna. A really delightful part of this m/f romance is that it doesn’t take very long for Rico to get over himself and acknowledge just how much he is absolutely head over heels for Ashna. And then the WAY that he loves her – understanding what she needs on every level from emotional to physical – is fantastic. He’s a really great guy (and also soccer players have the best butts, it is a truth universally acknowledged, so…).
PS: Is this book perfect? No. There’s almost no resolution to Rico’s own childhood issues, and Ashna is not nearly as good at recognizing their impact on him as he is at dealing with hers. At one point she’s pretty callous about it, actually, and there isn’t any further exploration of it because it’s buried in the resolution of all of their other lingering issues. I do feel confident that it’s something they might conceivably work out later on in their relationship, though – there’s only so much that can fit into one book, and timeline-wise there’s got to be a happy ending to end on, right? There’s also plenty of handwavery covering the reality show and its workings that people who are Big Fans of that sort of thing will probably complain about – I’m not one of them, and frankly for what is supposed to be the central plot device there’s not actually a lot of time spent on the show itself, which is fine by me. The version I read was an ARC – it might be nice to put in some kind of formatting distinction or chapter heading for the chapters that are jumps back in time – I was able to figure it out pretty quickly, but there was always a sense that I was figuring it out, which takes away from the immersion of reading that this book is so, so good at. But I’m not expecting perfection out of the things I read – what I got out of this was enough to write about, which was a sensation of comfort that isn’t always present in the stuff I read, and I really, really liked the feeling.