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Back to Austen business after a “brief” hiatus (also known as serving on a book committee, which took up all of my time. A fabulous experience, by the way!)

June 2012 sees the release of For Darkness Shows the Stars by young adult author (and JASNA member!) Diana Peterfreund. The book takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth in which genetic experimentation leads to the almost whole-scale destruction of humanity, an event known as the Reduction. It is also the story of a family of landed gentry who used to be important but are now living on past glories and precious little else, held together by the resolve and good sense of its youngest daughter. Janeites will easily recognize “Darkness” as Persuasion. Enthusiastic reviews have already appeared, and in light of the success of The Hunger Games, this book will be enjoyed by readers searching for the next great dystopian read. For the purposes of this blog (and my upcoming talk,) I will be examining For Darkness Shows the Stars solely as an adaptation. This is a spoiler-free analysis (unless you have not already read Persuasion!)

Peterfreund has taken what she calls in the book’s Acknowledgements, the “bones” of Austen’s story, and “made [changes] to its DNA”. However, unlike the Reduction, this genetic experiment works, and works very well. Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth are now Elliot North and Kai (later known as Captain Malakai Wentforth.) Kellynch Hall is now the North Estate, a once fertile farm which has been nearly decimated by poor crop rotation and an exodus of its staff–the Posts–barring a handful who are faithful to Elliot. Louisa Musgrove is now Olivia Grove. The book can be divided into two categories in terms of interpretation: fun details, and captured essence. ‘Fun details’ would include the hat-tipping involved in the characters’ names. Also, some well-chosen quotes from Persuasion at the start of each new volume (sometimes a risky thing to include because it only serves to highlight what a master writer Austen is, and how difficult it is to measure up.) But fun details do not a successful adaptation make (and neither does plot point-for-plot point, character-for-character transferral, for that matter.) The success lies in the book’s ‘captured essence’.

Publishers would not bother to mention that a book is a Jane Austen adaptation if they did not want to appeal to Jane Austen devotees, so informed readers need to recognize the source and appreciate the connection. Peterfreund accomplishes this by maintaining the three scenes which, for my money, cannot be missing from a successful Persuasion adaptation: Wentworth’s initial–almost unintentional–kindness to Anne Elliot when he removes those troublesome children from her back, the Cobb at Lyme Regis, and The Letter.

In this book, Kai does not simply save Elliot from a nuisance, but actually saves her life. The Letter is paraphrased quite prettily and concludes what has been a subplot involving Elliot’s and Kai’s childhood correspondence (always a nice touch in an Austen adaptation, since letters are so important to the understanding of Jane herself.)

But it is with the “Lyme Regis” scene that Peterfreund really earns her cred as Austen adapter. She takes what is, without argument, one of the most famous scenes in all of Austen’s books and not only does it justice but improves upon its significance for the purpose of her own story. Olivia’s fall is not the result of silly flirtation, nor a plot device to bring the hero and heroine closer. It results from a desire to taste the glory of a different life which Kai is revealing to the sheltered, privileged girl–and, of course, revealing to Elliot. For her part, Elliot is starting to understand the change which her childhood sweetheart has undergone–not just from boy to man, or servant to Captain. She is looking at a force which could possibly undo all that she has been raised to believe about the nature of the world and society in general. In Persuasion, the changing of the guard is from old money to new. In “Darkness” the stakes are higher and involve the future of the human race itself. I was thrilled with the way Peterfreund handled this scene.”Bravo!”

As I assess these Austen adaptations, I am of course on the look-out as to whether or not the books serve as launch pads for directing readers to the original. Peterfruend has written a story which does indeed take Persuasion‘s DNA and engineers it to tell a tale which is new and of interest to teen readers. The sci-fi backdrop is intriguing, and about as far from the ballroom as you can get. Thwarted love reignited is rewarding, and in Elliot’s case seems much less a fallout of being persuaded as recognizing a sense of duty. There is no Lady Russell counterpart advising her; Elliot persuades herself that she should not run off with Kai, and her reasoning seems justified in light of her responsibility to the estate and the workers in her care, who face an uncertain future because of the underlying social upheaval. There is a moral debate at the core of “Darkness,” due to its nature as a dystopian fantasy, which is not a part of Persuasion, a contemporary novel. So why would a reader who enjoys For Darkness Shows the Stars feel compelled to read Persuasion? What does the original have that “Darkness” does not?

Well, other than Jane Austen at the helm, the one element from Persuasion which Peterfreund is not able to duplicate, is the significance of age. Elliot is 18. She turns down Kai when she is 14. Fourteen?! How iron-clad is a love at 14? For teen readers who may very well consider 25 to be old, never mind anything beyond 30, the heartbreak of a 14-year-old is real. They would not smirk and quote condescending platitudes about “fish in the sea”. That’s what I, as a 42-year-old reader, would do. But consider that, at the start of Persuasion, Anne Elliot is 29, having given up her love at 19. The difference between 14 and 18, and 19 and 29, is obvious. Anne has endured 10 years of regretting her decision. A whole decade of “what-ifs!” How can an 18-year-old girl understand that?

Which is precisely what makes Persuasion, Austen’s most grown-up love story, perfect for adaptation for teens! Because one day those teen readers will be adults and they will be able to revisit the story with the wisdom of time. Pride and Prejudice, with it’s partying and flirting, or Sense and Sensibility with the tear-away Marianne (who I find becomes more and more annoying the older I get) are such obvious choices because the girls involved are teens themselves. Persuasion has a richness and wisdom which comes from living as an adult with the choices made as a teen. Evidently Anne was a silly teen herself, but she wasn’t silly in love. She was silly in judgement. In a society where the rules are changing, and where men not born to money can become wealthy through their own industry, time is the one rule they cannot overturn. Anne makes Wentworth realize what he wasted in grudges and resentment. Her triumph is born of that time she serves.

And that is what is waiting for readers who follow For Darkness Shows the StarsĀ with Persuasion. Same story, fuller perspective. And because Peterfreund’s story is so good, I have no doubt that her readers will find their way to Austen.

I would like to thank Harper Collins for sending me an advance copy of this book. For Darkness Shows the Stars is available 6/12/12.

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