Sunday, June 8, 2014

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Last Best Kiss'

** Spoilers ahoy! I'll be discussing this book in some depth. If you're familiar with Persuasion, they're not quite spoilers, though. **

The Book: The Last Best Kiss (the third of LaZebnik's Austen YA modernizations, after Epic Fail and The Trouble with Flirting)

The Author: Claire LaZebnik

How I Found It: I read LaZebnik's previous efforts last year. I reviewed The Trouble with Flirting (Mansfield Park), which I ended up strongly disliking, but not Epic Fail (Pride and Prejudice), which I did like. My thanks to my local library.

The Review: This book. The only word I can really summon is "ugh." I had hope; I really did. I told myself, after being so upset by the last quarter of Trouble, to not judge LaZebnik so harshly and to give Epic Fail a try, and it was an endearing diversion. When I found out this, a Persuasion modernization, would be LaZebnik's next effort, I was hopeful. And then so very, very let down.

I'm going to divide this review into a few sections that illustrate my main problems with it; it's the only way I can even begin to coherently discuss how many flavors of wrong this book was for me. As always, this is my subjective opinion, but I would not want this book to be given to teens, as it perpetuates truly irresponsible (and illegal) behavior, unfortunate sexist thinking, and its anti-peer pressure message is so muddled as to not even be recognizable. So let's start with that, as it's LaZebnik's substitute for the original's "persuasion."

Peer Pressure: To give a basic idea of the plot, Anna (Anne Elliot) and Finn (Frederick Wentworth) meet when Anna's older sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Elliot) needs a fourth for their carpool during Anna's freshman year of high school. Finn is sweet and geeky, and Anna is gradually endeared to him. They begin secretly dating--secretly for Anna, that is, who is afraid of how her friends will react. Finn isn't popular or conventionally attractive and as a result, Anna keeps quiet about their Starbucks dates and kissing sessions.

When the ninth grade semiformal comes around, Anna turns down Finn's invitation, insisting that going with a date while she's with her group of friends would be weird. Finn shows up at the semiformal in a suit that's probably his father's and asks Anna to dance in front of all her friends. Anna's friend Lucy bails her out and drags her away, and the next thing Anna knows, Finn is no longer speaking to her, and moves to Oregon before the start of the next school year. By the time Anna's senior year starts, she still hasn't forgotten about him, and Finn is now back in town.

I had a lot of trouble with this scenario. I recognize that it's extremely difficult to modernize Persuasion's basic plot and have seen discussion on this before--how exactly do you handle breaking up a modern Anne and Wentworth in a way that doesn't make Anne seem heartless, when the social context of just why Lady Russell persuades Anne to turn Wentworth down is gone? And that's exactly it--in the original Persuasion, Anne is, well, persuaded to break off the relationship with Wentworth. There was no direct persuasion here. None at all.

Anna's decision to blow Finn off at the dance is entirely her own. So is her decision to keep the relationship secret. In the original text, the reader can somewhat see the justice of Lady Russell's advice; Wentworth was penniless and socially below the wealthier Anne, and there was every reason to believe Anne was young, inexperienced, and likely to make a better match in the future. Anna? Anna is just young and stupid, and entirely too dependent on her friends, so dependent she assumes she knows what they'll say and doesn't even pose her and Finn's situation as a hypothetical. "We all wanted to fit in so badly. That was the thing. ... We dressed alike... and grew our hair as long as it would go and coveted or bought the same iPhones, the same messenger bags, the same necklaces. It made us a tribe. It made us safe. It made us bonded" (9).

I could have forgiven this absurd reliance on her friends if Anna had displayed one single shred of growth away from them by the time we see her again in her senior year. But she hasn't--she's still hanging out with the same group of friends, and as much influenced by them as ever. Her friends partake in social (underage) drinking and drug use (more on that later) and while Anna is shown to mostly not like that sort of thing, she doesn't stay away from it, either. She just goes along with it to fit in. And even after this is pointed out to her by Finn, in a way, late in the book, she still doesn't display individual thought. LaZebnik poorly illustrates Anna's supposed individuality by an eleventh-hour monologue by Finn about Anna's art, which is a solitary undertaking she doesn't shove in her friend's faces. And that's all the individuality he needs her to display. ... Huh?

Air of Entitlement: To explain the atmosphere that allows for the underage drinking and drug use I mentioned above, I have to mention where this is set, and the general attitudes of the teens. LaZebnik sets her story in Los Angeles, with all the teens going to an exclusive prep school. There's a lot of money involved--parents are lawyers and doctors, and the "Musgrove" twins' father is a music producer (responsible for the Coachella knockoff that in this book takes the place of Lyme Regis). Most of the characters have or had, at one time, housekeepers.

LaZebnik chose not to include the Elliots' financial distress, which saddened me. Maybe it's because this is very, very clearly wish-fulfillment lit for teens, but in a country beset by horrible economic times, I think showing that not everyone, even in privileged areas, is doing well financially would have been sensitive and realistic. Perhaps a modern equivalent to the Elliots' "retrenching" would've been an enlightening and comforting thing for teens to see. But no. LaZebnik stuffs this book to the gills with privileged teens (Hilary and Lily Diamond [Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove] even get to take turns accompanying their dad to the VMAs). And they're not even privileged teens with social consciousness. There is exactly one moment where Anna recognizes their privilege at all, and that's it. I expected, and did not get, some sort of social consciousness from Anna or Finn. Anna grew up with two housekeepers who practically raised her and her sisters. Finn is the only one who is mentioned as having less money than the rest. And yet, when Lily makes a mess all over the floor with a bowl of mini M&Ms and is told she should probably clean it up, her response that the maid will do it later is simply accepted as fact. I was hoping that Anna, having bonded with her housekeeper as a child and who even hugged the Diamonds' housekeeper as she entered, or Finn, who is not as accustomed to the lifestyle of the rich as the rest, would object, but nope. I thought wistfully of that great scene in Clueless where Josh puts Cher gently but firmly in her place with regards to her behavior to the Horowitz's housekeeper. There was nothing of that here.

Anna herself? She's not the quiet, withdrawn, "only Anne" of the original Persuasion. Frankly, I saw her as an entitled brat just as much as the rest of them. Here's one particular segment that grated on me. Ginny Clay (Ms. Clay) is over, attempting to court Mr. Eliot:

"Anna, get the wineglasses."

I get out three. [Mr. Eliot] pours two and puts down the bottle. I pick it up and pour a little bit into the third glass. "Cheers," I say, and drink it.

Dad shoots me a look, but he lets it go. (151)

Within a few paragraphs she pours herself more wine, and Mr. Eliot finally does verbally reprimand her. I found myself shaking my head in disgust. I could not see Anne Elliot asserting herself this way, and I'm not particularly endeared to an underage teen serving herself wine she clearly isn't offered. That brings me to:

Underage Drinking and Drug Use: Here's the thing: I'm 23. I'm legal to drink myself, but I prefer not to socialize where alcohol is involved and I don't drink much to begin with. That probably does color my opinion of what's presented here. But LaZebnik's previous two books were so tame that it was somewhat shocking to see such an abrupt shift towards showing drinking and drug use here, with mentions of sex and even a sole use of the word "fuck." I felt comfortable recommending The Trouble with Flirting as appropriate for younger Janeites; I don't think this one is, unless a parent reads it beforehand and feels comfortable discussing with their child why the behavior of Anna and her friends in this regard is inappropriate and dangerous.
  • A water bottle full of vodka is drank by a ninth-grader prior to the semiformal (24). 
  • Anna at least has the wisdom to go for an unopened soda at a party (104) and denies the chance to spike it with something stronger thanks to a promise to a friend playing designated driver that she'll stay relatively sober. 
  • Anna thinks that she'd potentially hook up with Wade (William Elliot) "if she were drunk" (106).
  • Wine is consumed at the Diamonds' house without parental supervision; Mr. and Mrs. Diamond are, Hilary says, "cool with that" (142-3). 
  • The driver getting them to the Coachella knockoff forbids drinking in his van, knowing all are underage (188).
  •  "Twenty bucks' worth of vodka" is confiscated before the festival (206). 
  • A teen is hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and must have his stomach pumped (289).
Less prevalent is the drug use.  It's only weed, but I was still surprised and irritated by the way it's presented. Yet again, Anna succumbs to peer pressure. "Weed isn't [her] thing," we learn, "but [she's] happy to pass one around in a group and have a hit or two" (214). To me, this is a "if everyone else in the group wanted to jump off a bridge, would you?" moment. The weed is being supplied by Connor, Wade's friend, whom Anna and Lucy have met about two minutes before. Lucy quizzes Connor about his source, finds out it's the captain of his school's tennis team, and decides it's safe. Anna and Lucy proceed to smoke the joint with Connor and Wade, which made this exchange between Anna and Lily pages later baffling:

"They're passing around a joint. Think they'd share with two cute girls who ask nicely?"

I shake my head [... and] whisper, "I'm not about to take drugs from strangers." Isn't that like Safety 101? (236)
One could argue that LaZebnik makes her anti-drug statement by Lily's being stoned off of that weed being the cause of her accident (the equivalent to Louisa Musgrove's fall), but one (admittedly serious) accident does not make up for scene upon scene of irresponsible behavior by underage individuals, especially when none of them reflect in any way on their own partaking in drugs and alcohol after the accident.

Sexism / Stereotyping / Diversity: I'm lumping this all into one category because it was less noticeable than the other things that bothered me about the book, but still there, and still unfortunate in reading material targeted at teens. Finn is the main offender on the sexism front, sadly, as he was the only character in the book I actually liked. In one instance, looking at a Garden of Eden-esque painting of Anna's and asking if the figure reaching for the fruit is male or female, Anna doesn't specify, saying the figures are genderless. "It's Eve," Finn says. "She has to be a female. She knows she shouldn't eat the fruit, but she does it, anyway. Because she shouldn't. Which makes her a total girl, and I'm allowed to say that because I'm a card-carrying feminist" (316). Later, Anna calls him "weird" for cleaning her room, and he asks if she's "questioning [his] masculinity" (332). Still later, [Finn] touches [Anna's] bare shoulder and says, "It's a good thing girls don't dress up like this all the time. Guys would lose the ability to speak coherently" (364). According to Finn, gender roles are rigid, and a woman should cover up her bare shoulders lest she distract a poor, helpless man driven crazy by the sight of them, and all of this thinking is okay because he's "a card-carrying feminist."

Though Finn displayed the most sexist thinking, it was Anna who came out with the worst example: "And I'm miserable because I can't cling to the hope anymore that Finn never hated me. He did. For a long time. And even though maybe he's stopped hating me--maybe--I'm miserable because he has now so completely friend-zoned me that I couldn't claw my way out of there even if I showed up naked on his doorstep" (234). Generally, when the sexism of the friend zone is discussed, it's in terms of a man being "friend-zoned" by a woman, and irritated that the woman will not gratify him sexually or enter into a relationship with him when he has been nice to her. This is a gender-flipped example, and a truly unfortunate one, because not only is Anna displaying some truly sexist thinking, she actually hasn't even shown Finn any kindness. Repeatedly, she thinks to herself that because she feels bad about blowing Finn off all those years ago, she deserves to be forgiven, and feels that the breakup is Finn's fault because he never gave her a chance to explain herself. Does she honestly think telling him that she blew him off because her friends would've made fun of her otherwise would have made her come off any better?

I'll cover the stereotyping and diversity fronts somewhat quickly, as this review is lengthy enough as it is. LaZebnik has two gay characters, Molly (Mary Musgrove, nee Elliot) and Oscar, a friend of Anna's. Molly--she was awesome. Molly could get her own book and I'd read it in a heartbeat. Molly's situation is made to loosely parallel Anna's, in that she didn't come out in high school for the same reason Anna didn't come clean about seeing Finn: fear of ridicule. A subplot in which Molly is subject to homophobia by her (not out) girlfriend's family is handled sensitively. Oscar was less well-done. He exists mostly to complain about how he's not getting any, thanks to being the only out guy in the school, and... to be a token gay character, evidenced by lines like these: "Gay guys make the best boyfriends [to straight girls]. I actually like to go clothes shopping" (359). This was better than LaZebnik's previous inclusion of gay characters in The Trouble with Flirting, where the setting made two gay males into theatre-loving stereotypes, but Molly was the only nonstereotypical gay character here and, sadly, not part of the book enough to really matter.

On the diversity front, there is the Diamond family, who are Asian, and... the housekeepers, who are given typically ethnic names. And that's it. The female legs on the cover are white. No one but the Diamonds are given ethnicities, but it's almost entirely safe to assume they're all Caucasian. I recognize that all Austens, except the unfinished Sanditon, are entirely white, but this is 2014, and this is taking place at an urban high school. Diversity shouldn't be a problem.

Clearly, I had a lot of problems with this book. I wish I could say there were a few things I at least liked about it, but sadly, there weren't many. The aforementioned inclusion of Molly was one. That Lily was a (directly stated) criticism of the sexist Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope was another. But ultimately, it didn't succeed as a Persuasion modernization for me simply because Anna was not persuaded by anyone out of being with Finn, and because Anna was such a follower of the crowd in every respect, still going along with her friends' stupid antics despite her recognizing she shouldn't have blown off Finn because of what she felt they'd think, I didn't genuinely believe she'd changed from her ninth-grade self, nor did I feel she deserved sweet, smart Finn, whose self-admitted hatred of her felt justified. She treated him cruelly and his telling her she would have to "have an opinion of her own for once" (246) was used by Anna as an excuse to be petulant and not to display any real growth. This conversation late in the book sums it up:
"I guess people change." 

"Yeah," I say. "They grow up and stop acting like idiots." 

 "That's half true." 

 "Are you saying I'm still an idiot?" 

 "I'm saying we all are." (349)
And they really all were, and remained the same people they were at the beginning of the book. Because of the shallow characterizations, irresponsible and illegal behavior by underage characters, and the perpetuation of some truly unfortunate sexist ideas and a lack of diversity where there should be plenty, I cannot in good conscience recommend this to anyone, Janeite or no. For a better, more enjoyable modern take on Persuasion that also happens to deal with the college admission process, a concern of Anna and her friends in this book, see Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen in Scarsdale.