An English professor struggling for tenure discovers that her ex-fiancé has just become the president of her college—and her new boss—in this whip-smart modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion.
Anne Corey is about to get schooled.
An English professor in California, she’s determined to score a position on the coveted tenure track at her college. All she’s got to do is get a book deal, snag a promotion, and boom! She’s in. But then Adam Martinez—her first love and ex-fiancé—shows up as the college’s new president.
Anne should be able to keep herself distracted. After all, she’s got a book to write, an aging father to take care of, and a new romance developing with the college’s insanely hot writer-in-residence. But no matter where she turns, there’s Adam, as smart and sexy as ever. As the school year advances and her long-buried feelings begin to resurface, Anne begins to wonder whether she just might get a second chance at love.
Funny, smart, and full of heart, this modern ode to Jane Austen’s classic explores what happens when we run into the demons of our past...and when they turn out not to be so bad, after all.
By the Book chapter one “WHAT TIME’S YOUR CLASS, Anne?” my best friend and fellow English professor Larry asked. He was standing at the door to my office in his pressed shirt and tortoiseshell glasses, his balding head shaved close and his hand clutching an interoffice mail envelope.
“In fifteen minutes,” I said, scrolling through my backlog of student e-mails. “Ugh, listen to this one.” I read aloud: “ ‘Hey, Prof! It’s Mike. I’m going to miss class today because I’m stuck at Burning Man and can’t get a ride back until tomorrow. See you Wednesday!’ I mean, can you believe it? Burning Man? Why not just say you’re sick?”
“At least he’s being honest,” Larry said. “I mean, I wish I were at Burning Man.”
“DELETE,” I said. “God, why don’t they make kids take a class on e-mail etiquette during freshman orientation? You know, like address your professors by their full title, not ‘Prof’ or ‘Yo.’ ”
“I once got an e-mail from a student that began with ‘What up, Lar?’ I have to admit, I was a bit charmed.”
“Hmph,” I said. “I’d kill my students if they tried to call me Anne.”
Larry was a Henry James scholar. He wore cashmere sweaters and tweed jackets and shoes custom-made by John Lobb. You know how people start to look a lot like their dogs? Well, professors start to look a lot like their subjects.
“Your office is looking . . . disheveled,” Larry said, eyeing my piles of library books, the empty Starbucks cups littering my desk, the academic journals I subscribed to but never read, instead using them as a doorstop. He walked over to my desk and picked up my broken wall clock, which was lying facedown on a stack of papers.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“It needs a new battery,” I said without looking away from my computer screen. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”
“This clock has been lying here for at least six months,” Larry said. “No wonder you’re always running late! How do you know what time it is?”
“I have my phone,” I said. “Clocks are obsolete.”
“Preposterous!” Larry said. He always wore an elegant watch with an alligator-skin band, passed down from his grandfather. He disappeared from my office, carrying the clock. A few minutes later, he reappeared, fiddling with the clock hands.
“I’m setting your clock five minutes ahead,” he announced. “By my calculation, you should be in class right now.”
“Wait, what? Really?” I yelled, jumping up from my chair and spilling my coffee onto the keyboard. “Where are my lesson plans? Where’s my book?” I rifled through my desk, looking for napkins and cursing.
Larry picked up my dog-eared copy of Middlemarch, its cover stapled on, its pages bristling with Post-it notes. “Is this what you’re looking for?” he said drily.
“That’s it!” I said, snatching it from him. I threw it into my book bag, scrambling around the outside pouch to make sure I had dry-erase markers, my lipstick, a pen.
“I don’t know how you make your students read that book,” Larry said. “It’s one thousand pages of pedantic moralizing.”
“I don’t know how you can read Henry James,” I retorted. “What was it that Twain said? ‘Once you’ve put down a James novel, you can’t pick it back up again’?”
“Twain was a philistine,” Larry said, unperturbed. He handed me a lint brush. “You have cat hair all over your skirt.”
“Ugh, I need to take Jellyby to the groomer. She’s shedding like crazy.”
“Another lion cut? Don’t you think that’s a little undignified? She’s a house cat, not a beast in the jungle.”
“Har-har,” I said. I dove under my desk to find my heels, which I’d kicked off as soon as I’d arrived in my office that morning. “Will I see you after class?”
“I have my shrink appointment now, but yes, I’ll see you later—you’ll be at the reception for our new president, yes?”
“We have a new president?” I asked, shoving my feet into my heels. Our previous president, a Civil War historian, had retired only a few months earlier due to health issues.
“He was hired over the summer! Didn’t you see the e-mail? Or did you delete it, like Mr. Burning Man’s missive?”
“I don’t check my school e-mail over the summer,” I said. “Who is it? Oh, wait—let me guess. I bet it’s an MBA who wants to raise money for a new stadium.”
“No, this guy actually sounds interesting,” Larry said, hanging my clock on the wall. He stood back for a minute, making sure it was straight. “He majored in English as an undergrad, you know. In fact, you might have known him—he went to Princeton, too.”
“Really? I’m sure he must have been years ahead of me.” I slung my book bag around my shoulder and headed to the door.
“Actually, he’s around our age,” Larry said. “Fortyish.”
“I’m thirty-two,” I snapped. “What’s his name?”
“Adam,” Larry said. “Adam Martinez.”
“Wait, are you sure that’s his name?”
“Yes, why? You recognize it?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But it can’t be the same guy. It’s a common name, right?”
“I’m late for my appointment, and you, my dear, are late for your class,” Larry said, pushing me down the hall. “Oscar Wilde may have always been late on principle, but you don’t have tenure yet!”
I RACED ACROSS CAMPUS, my heels punching holes in the lawn. I hated wearing heels, but since I was barely five foot two, I needed all the help I could get. As I walked, I applied my lipstick and tried to smooth down my hair. I breathed into my palm and sniffed. Not great, but not rancid.
The campus smelled like freshly mown grass. All around the quad, students were sunbathing or playing Frisbee or making out. It was September at Fairfax, a small liberal arts college tucked into the San Bernardino foothills. The town reminded me of an East Coast college town, just transplanted to Southern California. A two-block Main Street held a constantly changing array of frozen yogurt shops, pizza places, and clothing boutiques. There were picturesque Craftsman-style bungalows on streets named after Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges—Harvard Street, Cornell Place, Wellesley Road. There was even collegiate Gothic architecture. One of the college’s early benefactors, a railroad tycoon, had donated his fortune to the school under the stipulation that all campus buildings be modeled after his alma mater, Yale. If it weren’t for the palm trees on the edge of campus, you would think you were in the middle of Connecticut.
Adam Martinez. It couldn’t be him, I thought as I cut across the quad. I pulled out my phone and tried to search through my inbox for the invitation to the candidate reception. I had 14,335 messages in my account. Apparently, I hadn’t deleted quite enough e-mail. I searched for “Adam Martinez” and came up empty. Maybe it had gone into my spam folder. Or maybe Larry had just gotten the name wrong.
I reached my classroom just as the campus clock tower struck ten. There were maybe twenty-five students in the class, minus one or two or five who were stuck at Burning Man or “sick” or hungover. As I’d expected, most of my students were women. The class was “Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century British Novel,” and it was full of wide-eyed English majors who had read too much Austen and Brontë when they were in middle and high school. I could spot them a mile away because I used to be one of them—young, mousy, and naive enough to believe Darcys and Rochesters existed. My job, I often told myself, was to force my students to look at the novels critically, analytically. These novels weren’t about love. They were about money, and power, and imperialism, and real estate. At least that’s what I said to them, even though, deep down, I was as big of a sucker for the romance as they were.
I’d assigned the first few chapters of Middlemarch to kick off the class, but it was pretty clear that many of the students hadn’t finished the reading. I knew what they were thinking: Casaubon was a loser, and Dorothea was an idiot, and God, how annoying was it that the Victorians were paid by the word? I could just imagine my students furtively texting each other beneath their desks:
Student 1: “u read the book?”
Student 2: “TL; DR.”
Besides that, school had just started, so we were still in “shopping week,” that period of free choice and zero commitment that students loved and professors resented. Most of my students were still in vacation mode, relaxed and giddy at reuniting with their friends after the summer.
I briefly lectured, then broke the class up in smaller groups and had them analyze passages.
“Don’t just give me a plot summary of the passage,” I told them. “Trust me—I’ve read the book.” The class snickered. “Slow down and look more closely at the language. Why does Eliot make certain word choices? What metaphors does she use and why?”
As I walked around the classroom, dipping in and out of group discussions, I scolded myself for being so distracted. I was as bad as my students, counting down the minutes until class was over, desperate to check my phone to see if Larry had texted or e-mailed me. A student raised her hand and I hurried over, grateful for the interruption.
ON MY WAY TO my next class, I checked my phone again. Larry had forwarded me the message with the reception info. I scrolled through the event details, and there he was. The new president was named Adam Martinez, and he had previously been provost at the University of Houston.
It can’t be, I thought, stopping dead in the middle of the quad. Hands shaking, I clicked on the attachment. Slowly, Adam Martinez’s CV downloaded onto my phone. I frantically scanned his work history. He’d been provost at the University of Houston for three years. Before that, he’d served as dean of their law school. Before that, he’d worked in something called “private equity.” And before that, he’d worked as an in-house counsel for a Wall Street bank. I searched for his degrees. JD/MBA from Columbia University. Bachelor’s in English from Princeton.
I suddenly felt faint. My former fiancé was my new boss.
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This reading group guide for By the Bookincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Anne Corey, an English professor in California, is determined to achieve the coveted tenure track at her liberal arts college, Fairfax. But she’s having trouble securing the book deal she needs signed before her contract is up. Then Adam Martinez—her ex-fiancé from her days at Princeton—shows up as Fairfax’s new president.
Anne keeps herself distracted with her book, her aging father, and a romance developing with Fairfax’s new writer-in-residence. But as the school year advances, Anne finds herself further entangled with Adam and other old friends from her college years. She is constantly questioning the choices she’s made since her broken engagement. She’s always done what’s best for her career, but is this a second chance at love? This is a modern ode to Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion, and the idea that the demons of our past may not turn out not to be so bad, after all.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The first man Anne introduces us to is Larry, who provides much of the comic relief in this novel. What else does he provide for Anne? How do his relationships connect her with other people? She doesn’t think the acknowledgement to him in her book captures their relationship. Do you agree?
2. Dr. Russell forces Anne to evaluate her post-grad options. She bluntly states, “When I think of the advantages women of your generation have had . . . I don’t understand why you would throw all of it away.” What hardships did women Dr. Russell’s age face when trying to have a professional career? What problems have women of later generations faced? Has having had more options led to greater happiness?
3. Because Adam agrees with Dr. Russell (that Anne should go to Yale), Anne has a moment where she believes “I could have a fulfilling professional life and a fulfilling personal life. I could have it all.” Why doesn’t it turn out that way? How much responsibility lies with Adam? With Anne? What family and social pressures were they each dealing with?
4. Anne feels her father treated Adam poorly and looked down upon her decision to acquire a PhD and so much student debt. But by his funeral she chooses to read Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Why do you think Anne chose this poem? How has her view of her father changed over the course of his illness?
5. At the beginning of the book Anne feels that her sister, Lauren, also looks down upon her lack of financial security. As their father grows ill and dies, does the dynamic of the sisters’ relationship change? Why do you think sisters have such a natural inclination to compare and compete with each other?
6. Anne reconnects with Bex at Lauren’s book club. That night Anne tells her she could have been a great professor. While she means it as a compliment, she realizes Bex thinks she’s judging her for deferring to her husband’s career. Why do women do this to themselves? And why are there some women who would judge Bex? Is there any way to have it all?
7. Anne’s book is an academic novel, but even her publisher notes it ties in with the current popularity of authors like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Why do you think their novels have had such staying power?
8. Anne tries to teach her students that nineteenth-century novels about marriage “weren’t about love. They were about money, and power, and imperialism, and real estate.” While this makes a strong academic argument, do you think Anne truly believes it? Why is her favorite novel still Persuasion?
9. Anne has never read Rick’s books, so at first, she doesn’t believe the accusations of plagiarism. Then she stays with him because she’s worried for his mental health. But after she speaks to Emily, she cuts off all communication with Rick, going so far as to get a restraining order. What did you think of Anne’s relationship with Rick prior to the plagiarism scandal? How do you feel about how Anne handled the end of their relationship? How did it compare to her break-up with Adam?
10. Anne sees Emily as the “younger, better, more hopeful version of myself,” and feels terrible for introducing her to Rick. Should Anne feel so guilty? Is there any way for a college-aged woman to see relationships in the same light as a thirtysomething woman?
11. The author uses the barrage of email Anne receives to give us insight into both Anne’s professional and personal life. Did you enjoy the switch from Anne’s direct narration? What significance does it take on given that Anne studies authors to whom letter writing was so important?
12. At graduation, Larry and Anne discuss how men handle break-ups verses women. Anne admits that the way she handles them is for self-preservation. Why was it so important that she admit this to herself? That she say it aloud?
13. Adam’s letter to Anne is a direct reference to Persuasion. But his two proposals to Anne are unique to this book. How to they compare to each other? Did you enjoy the first, second, or both?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. By the Book is based on Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. While not Austen’s most well-known work, it is a fun read if your group wants to directly compare and contrast the two novels. Make it a proper British evening with tea, scones, finger sandwiches, and “biscuits,” as the English like to call cookies. Some interesting points of comparison are how and why Sonneborn updated the Musgrove family from Persuasion into several different characters for By the Book. And who is worse—Mr. Elliot or Rick—may lead to some very personal takes on exes!
2. Jack is starring in the film Jane Vampire, a nod to the current trend of taking classic literature into the zombie and vampire genres. Even without these genre-specific reboots, modern adaptations are tremendously popular. Clueless was a high school take on Emma. Bride and Prejudice is a Bollywood take on Pride and Prejudice, while Bridget Jones’s Diary is a modern British update of the same story. Austenland imagines a modern-day Jane Austen, while Becoming Jane is a loose biopic of the author. How many members in your group have seen these film adaptations? Is there a favorite you would like to watch together?
3. The night of the gala Larry recites “The Wild Swans at Coole,” which is available to read at:
Read the poem and discuss how its themes tie into the themes of this novel. That night, Larry tells Anne “Your heart’s grown old . . . So has mine.” Is that true? What kind of emotional growth does each character experience from the gala to graduation?
4. Anne says the hardest part of her book to write was the acknowledgements. If you had the opportunity to thank the people in your life, who would you choose and why? Have your group try writing your own book club acknowledgments!
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. She is the author of By the Book.
"This utterly charming novel is, above all else, immense fun. The shade of Jane Austen and Julia Sonneborn have collaborated to produce a deftly-crafted tale full of romance, ambition, and wit. The result is a complete delight.”
– New York Times bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith
"Julia Sonneborn’s witty and wise retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a refreshing tale that had me in its spell from the first page to the last. Spunky, relatable, and adorably flawed, heroine Anne Corey is balancing professorhood, sisterhood, and an aging father—and two irresistible men who love her and hate each other. A good dose of humor and a dash of drama make this a compulsively readable, utterly charming debut."
– Kristy Woodson Harvey, national bestselling author of Slightly South of Simple
"Sonneborn handily translates Austen's tale [Persuasion] into a modern context, creating a light, bright revision with quirkily compelling characters… This decidedly filmable update of the classic romance will charm lovers of Jane Austen and chick lit alike.”
– Kirkus Reviews
"Sonneborn’s first novel updates Jane Austen’s Persuasion with lots of appealing, cozy details, old college architecture, a romantic rival (who’s really more of a Wickham, but whatever), a gay best friend, and lots and lots of libraries... readers of light women’s fiction with likable heroines will connect with the book-smart but not so love-smart Anne. Give this to fans of Shannon Hale’s Austenland (2007) and unapologetic lovers of the Hallmark Channel."
"Entertaining, romantic, and smart, this debut is a clever reinvention of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and a delightful way to spend an afternoon.”
– Library Journal
"Sonneborn delivers a novel filled with a touching understanding of love and loss that probes some of our most vulnerable moments while also delivering a conclusion of the highest, squee-inducing order."
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