Bennet, Pride Before the Fall
Anyta Sunday is a popular author of m/m romances, but I haven’t read anything of hers so far, and I decided to dip my toe into the water with Bennet, Pride Before the Fall, book three in her Love, Austen series. As you’ll probably glean from those titles, the series comprises queer re-workings/re-imaginings of Jane Austen’s novels (so they all stand alone) and this one is based on Pride and Prejudice. It hits all the beats of the original, but it lacks depth and feels very episodic as it jumps from one plot point to another, seemingly trying to cram them all in while not developing characters or relationships – or, in fact, doing anything new other than making the two protagonists men who are a bit older than those in Austen’s beloved classic.
Bennet Keene is forty-five and works as a freelance editor of gay romance novels. He’s out and proud, flirts for fun and likes no-strings sex occasionally, but ultimately, he’s searching for deep, meaningful love. Sadly, that hasn’t happened so far, and living in the small village of Cubworthy as he does, it doesn’t seem likely to. His much younger brother Lyon lives with him, but their relationship is a bit strained; Lyon is fifteen and Bennet has been absent from his life since Lyon was a toddler, returning to Cobworthy only after the recent deaths of their parents. Bennet wants to take care of Lyon, who, full of teenaged hormones and resentment, doesn’t think he needs looking after.
Bennet’s friend Charlie runs the local pub, and Bennet heads there one evening with the intention of having a chat with Caroline Bingley, the self-appointed Queen Bee of the village, who is every bit as snobbish and bitchy as the original Caroline. Bennet is planning to organise a Pride event in the village this year and plans to tap Caroline for some funding – but before he can approach her, he bumps into someone he’s seen only once before – while out riding that morning, in fact – an attractive man of around his own age whose dark eyes and commanding presence make Bennet feel slightly lightheaded. He realises this must be the owner of the nearby Silverfield estate, Darcy Tilney – and Bennet immediately susses out that while the other man clearly liked what he saw when giving Bennet the once-over, he didn’t like that he liked it. And a man who denies or takes no pride in who he is isn’t the man for Bennet.
It’s Karaoke Night, and when Bennet is talked into getting up on stage, Charlie’s dad invites Darcy to get up there with him (because Darcy’s son is bisexual… so that means he must want to sing with Bennet? I’m not sure if that’s dumb or insulting. Both, probably). Of course, the very staid Darcy brusquely refuses to do so. Honestly, I didn’t blame him; I’d probably have turned down a request to get up and make an arse of myself in front of a crowd of people I didn’t know! It’s a very different thing from refusing to dance with someone because they’re not handsome enough to tempt you!
Anyway. We don’t find out what Darcy does for a living (he’s a lawyer) until near the end of the book, but he’s forty-eight, a widower and the father of three children, Henry (who appears in Cameron Wants to Be a Hero, this series’ version of Northanger Abbey), daughter Georgie, and another son who’s name isn’t mentioned (I don’t think). Darcy has ignored the part of him that’s attracted to men for his entire life, but once he meets Bennet, that becomes more and more difficult to do.
Anyone familiar with the original will easily spot the parallels between it and this version, so I won’t list them all, but the author keeps fairly close to the Austen path, sometimes to the point of shoe-horning in events that aren’t really necessary in order to tell this story. And these take up word and page count that could have been used to develop the characters, who are barely two-dimensional, and the central relationship, which is severely underwritten and basically relies on the reader being familiar with P&P.
In fact, the most enjoyable relationship in the book is the one between Bennet and Lyon. They’re practically strangers who were thrust together by circumstance, and neither quite knows how to act around the other. Lyon is angry and resentful, and their gradual rapprochement was nice to see, even if it it’s a little fast and there is no real exploration of their feelings about the deaths of their parents, which was only four months earlier. I was also pleasantly surprised by the direction taken by the Charlie (Charlotte) sub-plot, but as with everything else in the book, it’s merely glossed over.
The last twenty percent of so of the book is mostly, well, I was going to say ‘original material’ but it’s so unoriginal, that would be a misnomer. So instead, I’ll say that by that point, the P&P plot has concluded and the author then continues the romance ‘independently’ – but it’s as simplistic and superficial as the rest of the book.
Perhaps this was not the best choice of book to sample a new author; a reworking of pre-existing material – especially such well-known material – that carries certain expectations of plot and character may have cramped her style somewhat, and maybe her original stories are better. Unfortunately however, my experience with this title means I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll try anything else of hers. Bennet, Pride Before the Fall is uninspired and seriously underdeveloped, and I can’t recommend it. If you’re interested in reading a really good queer reworking of a Jane Austen classic, you can’t go wrong with Sally Malcolm’s Perfect Day, which is a fabulous retelling of Persuasion.