Last week I wrote a post about how culture expects me to love Jane Austen because I’m a girl, an English major, etc., etc. but I am just not the biggest fan. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy her novels or that I don’t respect and admire her. In fact, the first time that I read Persuasion, I was very sad to surface from the book and say goodbye to the characters within it. Persuasion has long been my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels. Perhaps it’s because it is one of the lesser known of Austen’s works, which means that the story has not been adapted and retold about a billion times (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice). But I think the main reason that Persuasion is my favorite is because Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s story is a beautiful picture of forgiveness and second chances.
When I heard that author Diana Peterfreund had written a science fiction retelling of Persuasion in a dystopian world, I was intrigued. And once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. The premise is thus:
Elliot North lives in a world that was destroyed years ago by an event called the Reduction, when a genetic experiment went wrong and decimated the human population. The only humans who were not affected by the Reduction were the Luddites who eschewed all technology. Now the Luddites are the ruling class in society, and their servants are the progeny of those who were genetically altered all those years ago. Elliot is a Luddite, but has always been curious about the world around her. But when her childhood sweetheart, Kai, who is a servant on her father’s land, asks her to leave with him and go in search of a better life, Elliot refuses and chooses her duty to the estate’s inhabitants over her love for Kai.
Brokenhearted and not always sure that she made the right choice, Elliot is still working to keep the estate solvent several years later. In order to do so, she rents out land to a mysterious group of shipbuilders called the Cloud Fleet. One of her new tenants is Captain Malakai Wentforth (ha, get it?), whom she is astonished to realize is Kai. Kai has done well and has made a name for himself. He hasn’t forgiven her for her betrayal, and seems determined to show Elliot how much she gave up, and what could have been if she had gone with him. While Kai threatens to turn Elliot’s life on its head, the Cloud Fleet harbors secrets that could also turn society upside down, and Elliot has to decide once again where her loyalties lie.
While the world building in this book can be a bit clunky and is sometimes too complicated for its own good, the rest of the book is worth the extra patience required. The pain that Kai and Elliot feel, the longing that they have for each other, and the tension between them are all emotions that pulse through the book and are palpable.
I think the most successful thing about this Persuasion retelling is the fact that Elliot made the right decision to stay, and Kai made the right decision to leave. It is understandable where they are both coming from, and therefore the hurt that they both feel is justified. The way in which Peterfreund sets up the social system in the book means that Elliot is in charge of protecting the people on her estate who cannot protect themselves. Elliot’s father is a cruel, greedy man, and she knows that if she had left with Kai, there would be no one to stop her father from doing irreparable damage to the people who work on their estate. Kai, on the other hand, knows that if he stays on the state then he will never be more than a worker who learns about the outside world from books that Elliot lends him.
Letters that Elliot and Kai wrote each other when they were younger are sprinkled throughout the book. Because of this, the reader gets to see the sweet, tender love that they had before Kai left. And this make it even more painful to read about Kai’s calculated slights towards Elliot, and the way the Elliot has frozen and retreated into herself. I found myself very invested in their story because I wanted them to reconcile and find a way to begin again.
I, as a reader, had immense sympathy for both of the characters, and was not sure how they would overcome the obstacles put before them. And while Elliot is in some ways a very different character than Anne in Persuasion— since, you know, she isn’t really persuaded by others to stay– Peterfreund does a great job of updating the story so that it fits into our more modern sensibilities. And so I read and read and read, finishing the book in almost one sitting. Is this the most brilliantly executed book of all time? No. Does it tug on your heartstrings? Oh my goodness yes. If you’re looking for an emotional roller coaster ride of a book, look no further. For Darkness Shows the Stars does not disappoint.