Undue Influence is a lovely and romantic second-chance love story featuring two likeable – loveable – principal characters, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. As a contemporary romance, it’s good. But as a queer twist on Persuasion… it’s average. Yes, all the significant characters and moments are here, but this retelling tries to be a bit too clever and contemporary, and in the process, loses much of what made the original so special – that delicate balancing act between past and the present, and the intimate rendering of principal and secondary characters. Though I don’t profess to be a Austen superfan, I think Undue Influence works best if you don’t compare it to its source material, and simply enjoy it for what it is: a charming and sweet, low-angst story of lovers reunited.
Eight years earlier, Adam Elliot, afraid of the intensity of his feelings, prematurely ended an affair with Freddy Wentworth. Shy, quiet and newly out of the closet, Adam had never been kissed, let alone fallen in love. That is, until he met Freddy, and he fell hard and fast for the bad boy of Bishop’s Glen. Unwilling to publicly commit to the relationship and unable to resist the pressure of his closest – and only – real friend, Adam let Freddy go… and he’s spent the past eight years regretting his decision. But when Undue Influence begins, Adam is dealing with a different set of regrets altogether – the loss of his childhood home and the family’s winery business. He’s spent the past couple of years trying and failing to rein in his mother and sister’s profligate spending habits, but his efforts weren’t enough. Now, listening to them discuss their plans to decamp to a friend’s house in the Hamptons the day after the foreclosure, he’s relieved to see them go, and eager to move on with his life. Despite his good friend Rusty’s constant attempts over the years to persuade him to leave Bishop’s Glen, Adam loves it and has no plans to leave. He only wishes he had someone like Freddy to share his life with.
When Freddy Wentworth first spotted Adam Elliot at the local inn where they both worked, he was instantly smitten. He finagled every opportunity to talk to him and get to know him, including pretending his car had broken down, just to spend time with Adam. After discovering Adam preferred to walk to and from work each day rather than accept a ride, Freddy simply stopped asking and started walking too. Before he met Adam, Freddy had never lacked confidence with men or women. He got laid – a lot. The town bad boy, infamous for the unfortunate town-square dick-sucking debacle, he can’t understand why he’s fallen so hard for the quiet and unassuming Adam – and he doesn’t want to screw it up by pushing too hard too fast. He’s startled when Adam kisses him – which marks the beginning of a summer love affair that changes their lives.
Undue Influence unfolds via dual perspectives in two separate timelines – young Freddy and Adam falling in love and trying to navigate a future together, and eight years later when their lives unexpectedly intersect again. Freddy, a famous chef, returns to Bishop’s Glen after his sister purchases the Elliot’s winery at auction, and Freddy’s best friend and business partner Ben Captain retreats there after his wife dies. Adam still works at Rusty’s garage, and remains close to the man who is still his closest and pretty much his only friend. Adam and Freddy, via the various secondary characters in their lives, find themselves spending time together once again and realize they’ve never stopped loving each other or regretting the end of the relationship.
The differences between Undue Influence and Austen’s Persuasion are what make it so freshly appealing, and I loved watching Adam and Freddy fall in love the first and second times. One of the book’s biggest problems, however, is that the reasons for their split just don’t have enough substance to account for an eight year separation. Freddy has very valid reasons why he should be angry at Adam for ending the relationship, but after he acknowledges his anger – he moves on. Spending time with Adam again simply reignites the feelings he thought he’d buried, and knowing he’ll never get over him, he stops trying. Adam, who knew right away he’d made a huge mistake when he pushed Freddy away, has always hoped for a do-ever. I loved the flashbacks juxtaposed with their newly unfolding relationship, and the lovely, light touch Ms. Holiday has with the evolution of their relationship. Although both men have regrets about how the relationship ended, once they reconnect, there’s never a doubt in the reader’s mind they belong together and they love one another. It’s the perfect mix of delight, angst, charm and passion, and I loved this pair in their young and older iterations.
On the other hand, I didn’t care for the secondary characters – an odd and largely unlikeable group – and they detract from the pleasure of this story. Rusty, the Mrs. Russell of this modern reimagining, is a garage shop owner and mechanic by day, fabulous drag queen at night and mentor/father figure to Adam. He seems like (he is!) a great guy – until he acts like a selfish dick and precipitates the end of the relationship between Freddy and Adam. I didn’t get the character or his motivations, and even his saccharine sweet ending didn’t sway me. I hated the guy Adam ‘dates’ in the latter half of the novel – whom Rusty encourages him to pursue. Adam’s family is predictably terrible and awful, as is the Lucy/Lulu character. I’m familiar with Persuasion and I understand why Ms. Holiday felt they all needed to be included, but none of them are fully realized with understandable motivations and backstories, and frankly, they do more to detract from the story than add to it in any appreciable way.
Undue Persuasion is a romantic and charming love story that has just the right amount of underlying tension, angst and heartbreak to keep the reader engaged and hoping for a happily ever after. The ending is satisfying and lovely, and as a contemporary romance, it rates a B+. However, despite the author’s rather clumsy and awkward references to her source material, Undue Influence – aside from its premise – has little in common with the original Persuasion, and only earns a C. My final grade is a compromise; I recommend it with reservations.