Emerett “Lake” Lakewood is convinced he has an impeccable knack for matchmaking. The best argument in his favor: his best friend, Taylor Dixon, recently tied the knot with the woman of his dreams. Now, Lake is on a mission to get all his friends happily paired up…starting with Harry, one of Taylor’s cousin-by-marriage. As Lake begins orchestrating meet-cutes, run-ins, and all manner of social engagements, Taylor’s father, Knightly “Knight” Dixon, takes notice and attempts to keep Lake’s good intentions from going awry.
While Taylor is away on his honeymoon, Lake ends up staying with Knight. The older man knows Lake’s actual residence is less of a home and more of a reminder that both his parents are gone and their business legacy is a long forgotten dream. And somehow, it just makes sense. Or it did until Lake begins to realize just how unfalteringly kind, caring, and thoughtful Knight is. Or how handsome. Or how single. Swamped with thoughts of lust for his best friend’s father, Lake is desperate to keep that cat in the bag. That proves harder to do than Lake would have thought because when Lake suspects Knight has a bit of unrequited love for someone else, Lake suddenly turns green with jealousy. And as if lusting after so-called forbidden fruit weren’t enough, one of Lake’s intended matches after the other begins to fizzle. Soon, Lake is convinced he lacks any skill in pairing up happy couples; he just hopes all his machinations don’t actually lead to ruining anyone’s life. Most of all, Lake hopes his failure to read any and all manner of personal relationships doesn’t end up ruining the intimate friendship he has with Knight.
Emerett has Never Been in Love is a contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma and the first in the Love, Austen series. The book also includes several charming illustrations by Lauren Dombrowski. I thought this was a terrific way to help me visualize the characters and the action. Though it’s not really spelled out, the story seems to take place somewhere in New Zealand and the author takes pains to include references to Maori culture and casts some supporting characters Maori. In the last year, I have gone through a pretty big Austen phase where I would watch one of the many versions of Emma offered on my streaming service; suffice to say, it was a lot of fun to read Emerett and try to match up which character from Sunday’s book matched which character in Austen’s. Some of the reimaginings worked better than others. Awkward Harry was a clear match for Harriet and the two characters’ stories exactly parallel each other. West was clearly modeled after Frank Churchill; however, it was West’s being gay that kept him from being able to freely associate with the man he loves—an interesting and contemporary twist on the Frank Churchill character.
As far as the structure of the story goes, I thought it worked well to start after Taylor’s marriage. It was a no-fuss way to get Lake into Knight’s home (and all his personal spaces) without needing a lot of explaining. I wasn’t quite sure how the age gap relationship would develop, though. Initially, it seemed a lot like Lake was already wholly in love with Knight, which left me eagerly watching for every gesture and bit of dialogue Knight had, trying to gauge when Knight would fall for Lake. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear Knight starts the book head-over-heels in love with Lake, but it was nice to be right there with Lake in the beginning, feeling like any sexual thought aimed at the older man was nothing but lust.
That said, the more I read, the more failed to understand why Lake and Knight were even in this dance of denying their attraction to each other. It felt like the way Lake and Knight interact with one another was often at complete odds with what they were willing to admit to themselves and to each other. About a third of the way through, Knight kisses Lake and things seem to be clearly intense between the men (quote edited for brevity and clarity):
“Maybe I’m over the concept of forbidden.” Knight pushed off the doorway, his body crowding Lake. Every inch of skin pebbled with goosebumps. “Maybe I encouraged Martin, because I wanted to encourage myself.”
“I don’t believe it,” Lake said, voice cracking. “You’re too levelheaded to do anything off-limits.”
Fingers drummed over the doorframe above his head as Knight leaned close. “It feels like you’re baiting me, Emerett Lakewood.”
The air thinned, yet Knight didn’t move. His gaze dropped to Lake’s lips and lingered. … Knight pressed a soft finger against his mouth, then traced the outline of Lake’s lips. Knight’s mouth pinched together in a silent curse.
And then it happened.
Knight pressed against him…leg nestling between his with tantalizing friction at his crotch. One hand fell from the doorframe and cupped the crook between Lake’s neck and shoulder; the other tightened at his waist. Knight’s pinkie slipped under the hem of Lake’s polo and Lake felt it like a plug into a socket. He gasped, and Knight drank it in. Shock rendered Lake motionless as Knight brushed the softest kiss from one corner of his mouth to the other. Lake’s breath hitched, lips parting, and Knight hummed, dipping to capture his bottom lip.
And then Lake spends the intervening seventeen chapters doggedly denying this was anything other than Knight “proving” he wasn’t afraid of a taboo. Throughout the rest of the book, there is an endless stream of scenes that showcase both how Lake is oblivious to his own feelings and to Knight’s, yet so many of them screamed anything but “platonic” to me. For example: Lake constantly notices how (sexually) attractive Knight is; Lake is jealous if he’s not the center of Knight’s attention; Lake shares Knight’s bed on the conceit that it is more comfortable than his own—complete with him falling asleep on Knight’s bare chest and drooling on his him. The kicker and point-of-no-return for Lake’s obliviousness wasn’t just the scene of enthusiastically consensual coitus between him and Knight, it was how these two continue the same song-and-dance despite it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it ruined the story, but it constantly nagged at me that literally nothing that transpired between Lake and Knight helped Lake figure things out.
Another point that was only vaguely explained was the Lake/Knight living situation. For all intents and purposes, I gathered that Lake wasn’t actually just crashing with Knight as a matter of convenience on the event of Taylor’s marriage. Rather, Lake just seemed to have moved in. Not into Knight’s en suite guest room, but the one immediately adjacent to Knight’s—with a shared bath. And Lake ends up sharing Knight’s bed most every night, yadda yadda yadda. For two characters who seemed to vehemently deny any romantic or sexual feelings (one because he thought his feelings were unrequited, one because he was too dense to realize he even had those feelings), it just felt so awkwardly “but why??”
Overall, this was a light-hearted take on a classic tale, retold with a gay twist. Fans of Austen will likely enjoy this retelling, both for the fun of matching the supporting characters to their classic counterparts and for watching an extremely oblivious MC finally put two-and-two together at the worst possible moment. Personally, I thought Lake’s aloofness was a bit over the top and found the “we live together” aspect sort of perplexingly unfathomable. Nevertheless, the faithfulness to the spirit of the original in most regards made for a fairly enjoyable read.