12:05 pm EST, February 6, 2018

Julia Sonneborn talks reimagining an Austen classic in ‘By the Book’

A small liberal arts college gets the Jane Austen treatment in Julia Sonneborn’s By the Book. We chat with the author about bringing modernity to Austen’s stories.

Julia Sonneborn’s By the Book is available everywhere now! Check out our review and exclusive interview with Sonneborn!

‘By the Book’ Review

If you are an English major long gone from college, or one currently questioning why you have to read an entire novel for your next class, By the Book is the novel for you. It balances the feel of a classic Jane Austen read with a contemporary romantic flair. Take it from this English major from a small liberal arts college — Sonneborn checks all the right boxes in this collegiate Austen adaptation.

Anne Corey is staring down the uncertain job security nearly ever professor faces — tenure. Not to mention taking care of her father, ensuring her sister doesn’t completely hate her, salvaging the one friendship she has on campus, and dealing with her ex-fiancé who just happens to be the college president.

Taking elements from Jane Austen’s Persuasion, By the Book envelopes Fairfax College, bringing love, lies, and lust to an otherwise tame and predictable English department. Anne’s journey through one tumultuous year will have you laughing at Anne’s predicaments, while aching for her to persevere.

Anne is as ambitious as her workspace is a wreck. One of the best female leads I’ve read in quite some time, Anne Corey basks in self-confidence professionally, while facing what we all do at one time or another — the dreaded, “Am I good enough?”

And while the novel could let Anne hang her hat on finding success through finding a man, she instead finds her confidence, appeal, and heart through being honest with herself. The ending, in particular, was this novel’s greatest asset. While everything felt tied up, it also left a feeling of incompleteness. Of lessons not learned.

This isn’t to say that the men in Anne’s life are ships in the night. In fact, quite the opposite. Like all great Austen men, you will love to hate each and every one of these fellows (except her best friend Larry). Richard Chasen will win you over, much like everyone he comes into contact with, up until the last moment. Adam Martinez will push you away, yet keep you at a comfortable distance.

And this is due in large part to keeping the story inside Anne’s head. By the Book captures the sinking feeling of self-realization, the thrill of finding someone’s hand, and the discomfort of finding yourself somewhere you’re not meant to be. It’s Anne’s journey and the reader is along for every curve of the ride.

Some adaptations hit the nail too on the head. By the Book avoids all the clever winks and nods and instead favors built out characters who feel different, yet distantly related to their counterparts.

It’s a world I wouldn’t mind revisiting — nudge, nudge — should Sonneborn feel the need to shake up the Fairfax campus once more!

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by the book cover

Our interview with Julia Sonneborn, author of ‘By the Book’

1. What about writing a story set in the bubble of a college campus appealed to you?

I like that a small liberal arts college can feel very cloistered and provincial-everyone knows everyone else, which is a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, you get to know your classmates and your colleagues intimately. On the other hand, it can feel very gossipy and suffocating.

2. Which elements of the story were easy to adapt? Which ones did you find the most challenging?

I borrowed some key moments from Persuasion. There’s the moment where Anne hears second-hand that Adam/Wentworth didn’t recognize her at first, which leads her to assume she must look terrible and of course he doesn’t remember her after all these years, etc. There’s also the moment where Adam/Wentworth rescues Anne when her nephew is abusing her.

And then, of course, there’s the letter at the very end, when Adam/Wentworth confesses his continued devotion to Anne. Those were, in many ways, the easiest to adapt because you can imagine a modern context where misinterpretations happen and people are brought together in unexpected ways.

The hardest part, though, was adapting the social strictures of Regency England to contemporary times. In Persuasion, Anne and Wentworth don’t actually spend much time together. They can’t just go out for a drink or drop by each other’s homes because unmarried men and women-proper ones-didn’t and couldn’t do that.

So much of the novel takes place in Anne’s head, and the lack of access-physically and emotionally-to the loved one is what makes Persuasion so agonizing and wonderful. For a modern reader, though, it doesn’t work. You can’t keep the two lovers apart for that long. I had to create more moments for Anne and Adam to interact, more moments of intimacy.

At the same time, I really wanted to keep the barriers up between them. Adam is Anne’s de facto boss, so they want to maintain a professional relationship. Plus, Fairfax is super small, so they’re acutely aware that any interaction between the two of them could feed campus gossip (Pam!).

3. There are so many elements for Anne to juggle — staying close with her family, keeping her own life (both professionally and personally afloat), and working with her students. As a professor yourself, what do you wish students would take away from seeing the curtain peeled back a bit?

You know, I’d like students to see their professors as human beings. We watch crappy movies and have a sense of humor and harbor insecurities and regrets and obsessions. We also spend a lot of time researching and writing and doing other stuff besides teaching.

But I’d also like professors to remember that their students are human beings, too.

When I’m feeling grumpy or burnt out, it’s easy to blame students for being entitled, or rude, or always on their phones. But I have to remind myself that my class is not the center of their worlds. They’re dealing with lots of other stuff-some of it trivial, but some of it a really big deal. Maybe they’re about to deploy, maybe they are struggling with mental illness, maybe they’re nursing a broken heart.

I have to remind myself that they are human, too.

4. Which Austen character is your favorite?

OMG, absolutely Elizabeth Bennet (and Mr. Darcy, of course). Pride and Prejudice is actually my favorite Austen novel, though Persuasion is a close second. Lizzie Bennet is so irreverent and witty and opinionated — #goals. And Darcy is…*sigh*.

I confess I added some Darcy elements to Adam-the aloofness as well as the quiet ways he helps Anne, unbeknownst to her. And of course Rick, as many readers have noted, is very much a Wickham.

5. Which is easier to write — the first or the last line?

The first!

6. If you could hang out with one character from your book for a day, who would it be and why?

Larry!! He’s the best. I partially based him on a grad school friend of mine (also named Larry) who was bitingly sarcastic and so, so funny. He’s the one who would whine to me, “Why do some people get all the cookies? I want more cookies!!!”

But honestly, I have been blessed with some of the funniest, most wonderful colleagues. They keep me sane.

About Julia Sonneborn

Julia Sonneborn by the book

Julia Sonneborn is an English professor and a Los Angeles native. After heading east for college and graduate school, she hightailed it back to California, where she now lives with her husband, two kids, two cats, and a dog. When she’s not reading, writing, or talking about books, she enjoys trying new restaurants, reading online gossip blogs, and throwing dinner parties.

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