Desert Isle Keeper
Sally Malcolm’s first published m/m romance is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which regularly vies with Emma for first place in my ranking of Austen’s novels!) set in a sleepy New York seaside town. I admit I’m usually a bit wary of retellings of classic novels – especially when they’re great personal favourites – but I’ve known the author on and off for over a decade, I enjoy her writing and was confident that she’d treat the material with respect – and that confidence wasn’t misplaced. Perfect Day is a beautifully told second-chance-at-love story that tugs at the heartstrings and can be enjoyed regardless of whether you’re familiar with Persuasion or not. It stands on its own very well, although the fun for those of us who do know the original is in recognising the plot points and characters the author has chosen to ‘transplant’ and how she’s made them work in a contemporary setting.
During one halcyon summer eight years earlier, Joshua Newton and Finn Callaghan met when Finn was employed to work on Charles Newton’s classic car collection at his Hanworth Hall estate on Long Island. The Newtons were extremely wealthy; Joshua’s father and older brother Michael were tough-nosed businessmen who believed money was everything, but Josh was always a bit of an outsider, a talented musician and gentle soul whose ambitions lay in a different direction. He and Finn spent as much time together as they possibly could over the couple of months that followed, falling deeply and passionately in love and eventually deciding to move to Los Angeles together, where the stunningly handsome Finn would pursue an acting career while Josh would further his musical studies.
But their dreams came to an abrupt end when Josh allowed his aunt Ruth to persuade him not only that he should finish his MBA at Harvard, but that for Finn to arrive in LA with a boyfriend in tow would end his career before it had even begun. If Josh truly loved Finn, he should end their relationship and let him go.
Eight years later, and Josh never did leave New Milton and embark on a musical career. His father kicked him out of the family home when he came out around a year after he split up with Finn, and he now lives in a small cottage near the beach, works part time as a music teacher at the local school and works a few shifts at the coffee shop in town. He knows he’s living a small life, which isn’t at all what he’d intended, but he lacks the energy to break out of his regular patterns and prefers his music and his own company to interacting with people – which he finds exhausting.
When the present day story opens, Josh’s father has been imprisoned for tax fraud and the house and as many possessions as possible must be sold off in order to pay his creditors. Josh is completely unprepared to learn that Hanworth has been bought by hot-shot lawyer Sean Callaghan – Finn’s younger brother – who will be arriving, with his wife, to take possession in a matter of days.
Josh tries to tell himself that it’s unlikely Finn will ever visit, and that if he does, they’re unlikely to meet. Even when he learns that Finn is flying in to spend a few days with his brother, Josh hopes to avoid seeing him – hopes which are dashed when Finn accompanies Sean into the coffee shop one morning. Josh is stunned but manages to nod an acknowledgement – while Finn looks furious and leaves without saying a word.
At first, Finn’s ire is focused on Josh and the way he’d so carelessly broken Finn’s heart, but later it turns inward as he realises that even after eight years he still has feelings for Josh – and doesn’t want them. Being afforded the second PoV is probably the biggest difference between Perfect Day and Persuasion; in that novel, the story is told entirely through Anne Elliot’s eyes, whereas here, we’re given direct insight into Finn’s emotions and motivations, and I enjoyed that aspect of the storytelling, as it means that the author is able to present Finn as a more fully-rounded individual and explore his conflicted feelings for Josh, his desire to punish him for breaking his heart and the desire to grab onto him and never let him go.
Ms. Malcolm sticks fairly closely to the original story although she has removed or pared down some of the secondary plotlines; and Josh and Finn are very much characters in their own right and not just cyphers or pale representations of Anne and Wentworth. They’re richly drawn, with very distinctive personalities and voices, and flaws that make them seem that much more human. Josh has been living in a kind of limbo since he split up with Finn, and I loved watching him gradually find his way back to the person he’s supposed to be, and eventually, the strength to try to move on with his life.
The writing is lyrical and romantic, yet economical and precise, and while there’s plenty of angst in the story, it’s never overdone or overplayed. My one criticism is that the epilogue is perhaps a little long, but ultimately, Perfect Day is the sort of book you finish with a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction and a dreamy smile, and I’m more than happy to recommend it.