The thing with marketing a novel as a retelling is that you’re inviting comparisons to the source material. In the case of successful retellings, this is a great thing — books that can get to the heart of their inspiration and reinvent them are bound to delight readers who are fans of the original work and of the retelling alike. One of the most popular sources for retellings is Jane Austen, whose oeuvre has been mined for everything from zombie movies to Bollywood to Twilight. When done well. Austen retellings become classics in their own right — think Bridget Jones’ Diary or Clueless — but when done poorly, they suffer all the more for having such a beloved source material to pale before.
I was excited going into All Stirred Up because it’s marketed as a retelling of Persuasion, one of my favourite of Austen’s novels. Persuasion, perhaps the original “exes to lovers” angst fest, is fully of enough yearning, pining, and repression to provide excellent fodder to any love story and my friends and I have always searched obsessively for retellings that capitalise on this.
Unfortunately in the case of All Stirred Up, the comparison works against it. On the surface, it’s obviously a retelling of the novel — their is an analogous cast of characters, and critical plot points are, rather clunkily made modern: letters become texts! A concert becomes a comedy show! But Persuasion was never really about the plot — it’s notable among Austen’s novels for having the bulk of its conflict and turmoil occur within the inner landscape of the heroine. Anne Elliot’s longings, worries, and regrets are what propel the novel.
Moore makes the action decidedly external, adding the element of a culinary rivalry to turn up the heat (I’m funny, please laugh). In theory, this could have been an invigorating twist to the story. In practice, the culinary elements overpower just about everything else. The main issue is that whilst I can fully understand that the author is a passionate foodie — every dish mentioned in this book sounds utterly mouthwatering and I would not recommend reading on an empty stomach — I couldn’t really connect to it in terms of the characters. We’re told they love cooking, and we spend frankly excessive amounts of time watching them cook, but we never really identify with their passion. There’s not really a meaningful why offered to Chris and Susan’s love of the kitchen and this means the whole backbone of the novel collapses.
And as for Chris and Susan….well Wentworth and Anne they are not. Again, the most surface level elements of the original characters are translated — Chris is Hurt Bae, Susan is reserved — the depth of character that defined the original novel is not. Persuasion is powerful in its ability to make us feel the intensity of the connection between its protagonist after that connection has been broken; the quiet, palpable regret, the constant undercurrent of yearning — that’s the pulse of the novel. All Stirred Up doesn’t really capture this. We’re told both characters regret their breakup, we see them reminiscing about the old days, but nothing about it ever comes to life. It doesn’t feel like the painful, life-altering occurrence it should have been. I wonder if the author knew this, because the last 10% of the novel shovels in some truly bizarre additional details to the backstory in an effort to make it seem more Painful and Tragic™️, but it’s so utterly tonally at odds with the rest of the novel it’s more laughable than anything else.
This book probably wouldn’t be getting as much flack from me if it hadn’t marketed as a Persuasion retelling. Yes, even as a romance novel it has its flaws — mainly that due to the handling of the culinary elements, the actual romance reads very much as an afterthought with the central relationship impossible to connect to or invest oneself in — but it has its sweet moments, it’s easy reading. But putting it before Persuasion is inviting us to compare it to something that it cannot hope to compete with, and indeed that it does not seem to understand, and that is to this novel’s detriment.