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Second chances only come around once.
Eight years ago, Adam Elliot made the biggest mistake of his life. Now that mistake is coming back to haunt him. His family’s beloved vineyard has gone into foreclosure, and the new owner is the sister of the only man he’s ever loved—the man he dumped under pressure from family and friends who thought the match was beneath him.
When Freddy Wentworth, aka the bad boy of Bishop’s Glen, left town with a broken heart, he vowed never to return. But a recently widowed friend needs his help, so here he is. He’s a rich and famous celebrity chef now, though, so everyone can just eff right off.
But some things are easier said than done. Despite their attempts to resist each other, old love rekindles—and old wounds reopen. If they want to make things work the second time around, they’ll have to learn to set aside their pride—and prejudice.
I’ve read and enjoyed a number of books by Jenny Holiday (her m/m romance, Infamous is a firm favourite of mine) and as Persuasion is one of my top two Jane Austen novels (regularly trading places with Emma at the top of the list), the combination of the author and a favourite plotline was one bound to catch my eye. In something of an embarrassment of riches, this is the second m/m re-telling of Persuasion to appear in the last few weeks (the other is Sally Malcolm’s Perfect Day).
In Ms. Holiday’s take on the story, we’re introduced to Adam Elliot, whose mother and sister have pretty much run the family business (the Kellynch vineyard) and finances into the ground and are about to decamp to stay with a friend in the Hamptons. All the business of the foreclosure and removal has fallen to Adam, who is happy to remain in Bishop’s Glen, where he’s lived all his life, in spite of the continual urging of his oldest – and pretty much only – friend Rusty, that he should leave town and make something of his life.
Rusty stands in for the Lady Russell character as the bringer to bear of the Undue Influence of the title. Garage owner by day, Drag Queen by night, Rusty has been the only person in Adam’s life who seemed to give a damn about him – and is also the person who talked Adam into making what he now regards as the biggest mistake of his life eight years earlier.
That mistake was, of course, parting from the love of his life, Freddy Wentworth. Widely termed the bad-boy of Bishop’s Glen (especially after the infamous town-square dick-sucking incident), Adam and Freddy met when they were both working as parking valets at a local hotel.
Adam came limping up to the valet stand and kept on going right into Freddy’s heart.
Ms. Holiday makes good use of flashbacks to tell the story of Adam and Freddy’s romance (through Freddy’s PoV), a device I enjoy when it’s done well, which is the case here. We don’t get the story of Anne and Wentworth’s romance in the original novel, so I appreciated the fleshing out of the backstory in this way.
Back in the present, Freddy is stunned to learn that the property his sister and brother-in-law have recently purchased in what his best friend calls “the armpit of the Finger Lakes” is the one that formerly belonged to the Elliot family – and in spite of himself, he can’t help wondering what became of Adam. In the intervening years, Freddy has made good and them some; he and his friend, Ben Captain, have opened a popular and successful restaurant in New York, and have also become a pair of TV chefs, with Freddy being the grouchy Gordon Ramsay type while Ben is the sweetly encouraging one.
Undue Influence follows the storyline of Persuasion fairly faithfully, so we’ve got the McGuires (Lulu and Henry) for the Musgroves, Ben Captain for James Benwick, who, in the original was engaged to Wentworth’s sister (who died), but who, here, has recently lost his wife, and William Ellison for William Elliot, in the original, the distant cousin who takes an interest in Anne but is later revealed to be a rather unsavoury chap. Some events are, of necessity, omitted or truncated, but even allowing for a degree of dramatic license, I felt that many of the events occurring in the present timeline were rushed or included for the sake of it – just because they were in the original – and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed out.
The youthful romance between Adam and Freddy is sweetly adorable and they have great chemistry; Freddy is clearly deeply smitten and takes every opportunity he can to spend time with Adam, even going so far as to walk home with him, even though he lives miles in the opposite direction, and he shows a side of himself to Adam that he never shows anyone else. Present-day Freddy tries hard to keep telling himself he hates Adam for throwing him over eight years earlier, but it doesn’t take very long for him to admit to himself that’s BS and that he wants a second chance.
The book’s biggest problem, however, is with the reason for Adam and Freddy’s split, which just isn’t strong enough to explain away the eight year separation of two people who so clearly loved each other and, equally clearly, have never really stopped. This is always going to be the biggest stumbling block in any modern retelling of this story, because the reasons Anne Elliot gave up her Frederick Wentworth aren’t ones that would work dramatically nowadays. She was young and from a well-to-do, snobbish family and Wentworth was, at the time, a mere midshipman with neither wealth nor prospects. A young woman in the early nineteenth century was subject to the wishes of her family and Anne was persuaded, by familial and monetary considerations, to reject the man she loved. In the twenty-first century, those reasons are not believable ones, and unfortunately, Ms. Holiday hasn’t been able to come up with something else which satisfactorily accounts for Adam and Freddy’s separation.
I enjoyed Undue Influence and I liked Adam and Freddy, but the weakness of the pivotal plot point was impossible to ignore. I’m not sure if my knowledge (and love for) Persuasion is a positive or negative thing; if I’d come to this as an m/m contemporary romance without familiarity with the source material, might I have enjoyed it more? I’m not sure, because that plot point is still weak – perhaps even weaker if one doesn’t know the reasons given in the original story – and in any case, I can’t “unread” the other novel, so it’s a moot point.
I’m giving this one a cautious recommendation overall; it has a lot going for it in terms of the writing, the romance and the central characters, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s let down by the big flaw in the premise.