Rating: 4 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Elizabeth Bennet does not exist. No matter what people call him or how many dresses he’s forced to wear, Oliver Bennet knows who he is, and it isn’t a woman. The one respite he’s found is sneaking out dressed as himself, but that small taste of freedom may soon be ripped away. Being of marriageable age, the specter of matrimony and unwanted pregnancy is closing in, especially now that there is a new wealthy bachelor named Mr. Bingley in town. His presence (and fortune) kicks Mrs. Bennet’s desire to marry off her daughters into overdrive. Required to attend a ball, all Oliver wants is to fade into the shadows. Unfortunately, Mr. Bingley’s friend Mr. Darcy is encouraged to ask Oliver to dance, and Oliver is thoroughly humiliated by Darcy’s rude dismissal. Between being trussed up like a goose for sale and Darcy’s humiliating snub, attending the fair is a much deserved hiatus.

Basking in his much needed freedom, Oliver is dismayed to run into Bingley and Darcy. However, the pair only see him. He is thrilled to not only spend the day with other men, but to be invited to do so again, and their outings allow him to get to know Darcy. Though Darcy is still somewhat standoffish and terrible at social graces, Oliver learns how much more comfortable and less abrasive Darcy is in the company of men. As the two grow closer, Oliver becomes enamored of the introverted and bookish Darcy, but Oliver’s double life makes his feelings complicated. Increasingly bombarded with unwanted proposals, reprimands to be a proper woman, cautions to be realistic, and threatening behavior, Oliver has to make his irrevocable choice—stay trapped miserably performing womanhood or risk it all on living his truth.

Most Ardently is an emotional, but ultimately sweet story that is part of the Remixed Classics series, featuring authors from marginalized groups who retell classic stories from their personal cultural experience. It’s a Pride and Prejudice reimagining that follows a transgender boy’s journey to asserting his identity and unexpectedly finding love. Oliver sneaks away to briefly relieve the ever-growing strain and anxiety from presenting as a girl. He’s already struggling with dysphoria, but suddenly being thrown into the marriage market and having people talk about his child-bearing hips and womanly duties makes him want to crawl out of his skin. Socializing with Darcy as a boy is a dream come true because he can relax, be himself, and be treated as an equal. Oliver and Darcy form an easy camaraderie that quickly turns into flirtatious friendship. The pair find solace from familial obligations with each other, especially once they discover their mutual attraction to men. Their shy flirting, love of books, and comfortable companionship is adorable, and their loves blossoms more naturally as the barriers of misunderstanding, distance, and differences in social standing aren’t prevalent.

While Darcy isn’t much more developed than the original, his relationship with Oliver and being gay offers an interesting perspective. It smooths (some of) Darcy’s sharper edges and changes the dynamics of his behavior and proposal because he’s presented as an introverted gay man who disdains the idea of marriage, rather than the idea of marrying below his station. Many changes to the original plot and characters work well; they streamline the narrative and combine the new and original material satisfactorily. One of the most impactful changes is to Mr. Bennet; he is more engaged and stalwart than before. He’s less detached, actively protects and encourages Oliver, and their relationship is an immensely profound and affirming one. The support Oliver receives from his father and Jane is a bastion in the household that Oliver desperately needs, especially as his mother’s haranguing becomes increasingly unpleasant and hurtful. Charlotte’s character is also expanded, as she now has a female lover named Lu. As women and as people in a relationship viewed as abnormal, they have a personal understanding of Oliver’s situation. They are part of Oliver’s support system, and Charlotte’s home provides freedom and a safe place for Oliver.

In many ways, Oliver is the same as his counterpart—intelligent, witty, a bit of a firebrand, and affectionate when allowed. He’s also as idealistic, judgmenta,l and slightly sanctimonious regarding Charlotte and Darcy’s position on marriage, but it has added connotations because of their queerness, almost making his idealism too extreme. Oliver comments on the danger of being queer so misdirecting his anger and passing judgment on them without taking that into account (while still fearfully hiding himself from his family) is . . . a choice. That being said, he’s young, grew up in comfort, and has support from his aunt and uncle, so his ‘I’d rather die’ attitude and overconfident naïveté about making his way in the world is understandable. Moreover, since this is a sweeping romance about living your truth, love conquering all, and not settling, Oliver’s sometimes too modern language/out and proud rallying cries and his fantastical HEA fit the story it seems Novoa wants to tell.

Most of differences in Oliver’s personality are as great as the familiar traits, but to me, there is one that misses the mark. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is protesting the suppression of women’s autonomy and status as second-class citizens; however, this doesn’t feel true for Oliver. To me, Oliver’s negative responses to being disrespected and infantilized are because he is seen as a woman. At times, it feels like he’s protesting his subjugation to womanhood, not that women shouldn’t be subjugated, period. His upset at Charlotte marrying for security is about hiding her love for Lu; he rails against the societal mores that dictates who you are and who you can love, not the dictates that strip Charlotte and Lu of equal personhood. It’s understandable that he focuses on the oppression of queerness, it just seems odd that in a story about “subverting society’s patriarchal” expectations, he doesn’t affirm that woman should be treated as equals.

While most of the original material Novoa keeps fits his reimagining well, there are some elements that do hurt the narrative, the most notable being Mrs. Bennet. Whereas Mr. Bennet’s glow-up enhances the story, Mrs. Bennet’s almost complete stagnation doesn’t. Her dramatic and overbearing behavior is fine, but to me, her portrayal needed a few positive tweaks to not detract from the ending. A week before Oliver comes out to his family, Mrs. Bennet was screaming at him about not allowing deviancy in her home; yet,

Spoiler title
she does a 180° out of nowhere when Oliver shows up as himself. She basically says no wonder you didn’t like dresses in such a way it feels like a laugh track is missing. She somehow doesn’t miss a beat even when Oliver is also like, BTW meet my boyfriend. I get that the ending is all Hallmark vibes. I know it’s important to demonstrate how everyone should be embraced and accepted. I know it makes sense for the narrative structure because the Bennets need to show a united front at this point.
To me it’s still jarring and unearned.

Overall, Most Ardently is a heartwarming and effective young adult adaptation. Novoa does a great job conveying how mentally and spiritually draining and demoralizing it is to be seen and treated as someone you’re not and the euphoric liberation that comes with being yourself. It’s also lovely to see joyous outpouring of affection from loved ones after speaking your truth. Oliver and Darcy’s relationship is sweet and period appropriate, and their courtship is mostly comprised of bonding over reading. How much more romantic can it get?