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Persuasion (Tor Classics)

Persuasion - Jane Austen Oh, Man! I give Elizabeth one of the worst books ever written, and in return she recommends to me this thoroughly enjoyable book… now how much of a schmoe do I feel like? Thanks, Elizabeth!:)Romance as a genre contains several popular themes. “Love at first sight” is one of the big ones; “The one that got away” is another. I‘m not sure I believe in either one, but they’re ideas with resonance. After all, how many of us have a failed romance in our past, whose memory lingers on in the form of “the one that got away”? Replaying events in our head, we start to believe that if only X, Y and Z had happened differently, we might still be head-over-heals in love with our ex. And as time passes, our imaginations turn incompatible paramours into superstars they never were. Good qualities are magnified and faults trivialized, until the girl you could never quite seem to get along with, or the guy who was never fully engaged in your conversations somehow become mythically wonderful catches who somehow eluded us. Most of us recognize this as delusional thinking, but we each secretly believe our case is the rare exception where Mr./Miss Wonderful really was “all that“, and we messed up a golden opportunity for happiness when we lost them.On one level, Persuasion strikes me as a fantasy wish-fulfillment story about coming back and reuniting with “the one who got away”. The novel’s back-story is that seven years earlier, main characters Anne Elliot and naval officer Frederick Wentworth had been in love, but Anne’s family induced her to break off the engagement. Her snobbish father, Sir Walter, and older sister Elizabeth deemed Wentworth beneath the family‘s social standing. So, cut loose, Frederick goes off to make his fortune while Anne marinates in regret. The novel sees them meet again, with Anne now independent-minded enough to resist her family, and Wentworth now a wealthy Captain. Nevertheless, obstacles still exist: the Elliots remain unimpressed with Frederick’s social standing, and his newfound wealth is a bit of a mixed blessing: how can he know that Anne doesn’t just want him for his money and status now? Needless to say, the couple overcomes these odds, and Austen furnishes a happy ending. I don’t think reclaiming failed relationships is this easy for most people, but hey! that’s fiction for you. (Romance seems to be a category which could technically be fiction or nonfiction, but even real-life relationships have a lot of fiction in them, so maybe all Romance is fiction.)There is an additional layer of vicarious fantasy in this story, in that Anne and Frederick’s engagement was destroyed by factors completely outside their control. Meddling outsiders ruined their blossoming love. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that all our relationships ended for reasons which didn’t reflect poorly on ourselves? The truth is we usually don’t need to look any further than our own character flaws to know why our relationships fall apart. Immaturity, inflexibility, poor communication, selfishness, inattentiveness and poor judgment… these are the usual suspects behind most breakups… and I don’t mean to sound hard-assed about it; we all have our immature days, our selfish inclinations, and times when we don’t communicate so well. That’s why solid, healthy relationships require so much work. Finding the right match is never a matter of finding somebody free of flaws; it’s about finding somebody whose flaws you can live with, and who can live with yours. I never understood why people celebrate anniversaries, until I got married. I never understood what an accomplishment a 25th or 50th wedding anniversary represents, until I had experienced a few years of marriage, and all the communication and problem-solving it entails.Well, enough of all this Psychology 101 bullshit; let’s talk about the book. Persuasion is a good story. Anne Elliot is a sympathetic character; intelligent, sensible, genuine and compassionate. For his part, Captain Wentworth is likable enough too, although we aren’t privy to his inner thoughts the way we are with Anne. These are decent folk; we want to see these kids get together, so when they each become distracted by the attentions of less-appealing love interests (Anne with Charles; Frederick with Lorraine), there’s a drama there, which many of us may be familiar with: the pain and irritation of a third-person bystander impotently hoping an ill-advised match doesn’t take root. How many of us have had a friend or family member involved with somebody who was clearly wrong for them, and been forced to stand to the side, thinking “Oh God! Please don’t let [him] end up with [her]!” My sister brought home some real losers in her day, and put our mother through a lot of this particular type of anguish. She eventually ended up with a good guy (my brother-in-law), but it was a rough road getting there. Anne’s romantic interest in Charles is like this. So too is Wentworth’s courtship of Lorraine; fortunately, a propitious closed-head injury saves him from getting further entangled with her. (Win!)Beyond all this drama going on at center stage, Persuasion has a lot of delicious dry humor worth mentioning. Anne’s younger sister Mary is a comic relief figure, who whines about her poor health at every opportunity- unless there is a play or dinner party to attend, in which case she’s up for anything. Austen also sees the folly in much of British society of the early 1800’s. It is a place and time which stands on so much rigid protocol and social expectation, it’s just asking to be made fun of. It is a time when the rules of polite society demand that you can hardly go for a walk outside without being obliged to drop in on your cousin, to ask if she’d like to join you, even though you‘d rather walk alone. And your cousin, not really feeling like a walk, is bound by the same laws of courtesy to answer in the affirmative, so together you embark on your unwanted walk in silent, polite misery. I’m not sure whether this part falls under manners, but I was also entertained by the prevailing sensibilities in this book, which regard Anne, at the ripe old age of 27, as expired goods, hardly even marriageable; and her friend Mrs. Smith, at 31, is described as “feeble and infirm”, with a face which has been unfairly ravaged by the passage of time!My only criticism of Persuasion is that I think Austen made things a bit too pat by writing Charles Elliot as such a villain in the end. It makes Anne’s rejection of him too neat and easy. Part of the drama in romance (both in fiction and real life) is the agony over difficult decisions. Most of us don’t have such clear-cut choices laid out for us as Anne’s choice between adoring Captain Wentworth and conniving Charles Elliot. Anne will never look back and wonder whether she made the right choice, as so many people do in the real world. This didn’t ruin the book for me though; I actually really enjoyed it. Thanks, Elizabeth!