It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels translate pretty well into today’s teen lives. Let’s begin with Emma, which worked very nicely in Clueless.
With The Last Best Kiss, Claire LaZebnik takes Persuasion and rewrites it with teenagers in the starring roles. It turns out this was a pretty smart move on her part.
On the cusp of her senior year, Anna Elliott is in a reflective mood. She’s seventeen, making college plans, and thinking about her high school years with a mix of regret, and anticipation. Yes, she looks forward to all of the milestones to come her way, but she has a twinge (more than a twinge – an ache) when she recalls how she treated her first love, Finn.
They met during freshman year, and dorky, awkward Finn clicked immediately with popular girl wannabe Anna. Their relationship was progressing smoothly and happily until it interfered with Anna’s quest for “It Girl” status. Finn was just a little too … socially unacceptable. When Anna’s embarrassment over him becomes palatable, Finn withdraws himself from her life, eventually moving away with his family.
Now it’s two years later, and Finn is back. And, yes, he’s better than ever.
Immediately embraced by Anna’s friends, Finn clearly bears a grudge against Anna, who is overwhelmed by the rush of feelings she has for him. It doesn’t help that Finn has grown up – literally. He’s tall, gorgeous, and confident, and quickly becomes the object of interest for some of Anna’s friends.
Just as her namesake did in Persuasion, Anna has to get over herself. She has to face the mistakes she made and try to rectify them, even if it means suffering heartache in the process. She still cares about Finn, but every time she begins to get the sense that he returns her affection, he withdraws. She still cares deeply about him, and she realizes the extent of the mistakes she made when they were freshmen.
While Finn remains something of a mystery (we never quite understand the extent of his relationship with Lily, especially since she seems to engage in behaviors he does not approve of. Then again, Finn tells Anna on several occasions that what he likes about Lily is her complete lack of concern over what others think about her. As annoying and occasionally one-note as Lily is, LaZebnik acknowledges this by having a character ask if Lily is like “one of those John Green characters” bent on being free spirited and a bit destructive.
The subplot with Anna’s father and a barely-out-of-college friend of her sister’s is nicely done. Just as with Mr. Elliott in Persuasion, Anna’s father is pretentious and vapid, a man who preens for others to compensate for his lack of depth.
What makes Persuasion such an interesting choice for a young adult novel is its message: do not allow others to dictate your relationships. As frustrated as we get with Anna – as much as we want to scream at her – we understand. This is a high school girl who cares (too much) about what others think about her. Granted, if I had her parents, I doubt I’d be much different.
LaZebnik knows her characters and knows their voices. She respects them, even as she teaches them lessons. She knows that Anna needs to learn how to follow her own heart, that she needs to listen more to herself and less to others.
It’s a lovely book with a timeless message, perfect for teenagers – and those of us slightly out of our teen years …