Beyond a few nominal nods to character names and social standings, Epically Earnest bears little resemblance to the Oscar Wilde play that inspired it. Algie does share the rakishness and devilish wit of Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff, and heroine Jane does share Jack Worthing’s origin story of being an abandoned baby. But all of Wilde’s madcap plot points, particularly the hilariously incredulous notion that both heroines in his play have such a love for the name Ernest, have been stripped away.
The result is a much less biting, much more, well, earnest and sincere young adult romance. Epically Earnest is delightfully unrestrained in the adorableness of its central love stories. Jane has nursed a secret crush on her best friend Algie’s cousin Gwen for years; with high school graduation just around the corner, she’s desperate to shed her sweaty palms and dorky witticisms and muster the courage to ask Gwen to prom. Everything about Algie turns Jane’s younger cousin Cecil into a heart-eyes emoji, yet Algie is notorious for wanting nothing more than a good time. At least until a mishap at a bowling alley reveals Cecil’s courage and heroism, and while Algie continues to speak of their dates as being all about fun, it’s pretty clear there’s more heart-eye-emoji stuff going on than Algie cares to admit.
Both couples are adorable; both romances are just really sweet. With such unabashed, fluffy joy throughout, I was surprised to see the author’s narrative restraint in detailing the big, splashy climax scene in Central Park, and the grand finale scene at prom. Part of me wishes she had gone all out in those scenes as well — I wanted to enjoy every last bit of giddy cheesiness from those moments. Yet another part of me is also glad that she did pull back when describing the spectacle — rather, the scenes focused on the emotions Jane experiences, and the ways in which her connection with Gwen deepens. If this were a movie, the spectacle around Jane and Gwen would turn fuzzy, and music would swell as the cameras zoomed in to focus on the characters. As an artistic choice, it’s smart, and a move that reminds us of the humans at the heart of these moments.
Horan also expands on the subplot about Jane’s parentage. While her counterpart in Wilde’s play, Jack, turns out to have a family history that plays right into the outlandishness of Wilde’s plot, and conveniently sets up Jack’s happy ending, Horan’s heroine Jane takes a much more thoughtful and realistic journey along this front. As a baby, Jane was found in a bag abandoned at a train station. The man who found her eventually adopted her, and then married a wonderful woman, so Jane got to grow up with a loving family. Still, she sometimes can’t help but wonder about her birth family, particularly when she gains Internet fame as Bag Baby Babe.
This subplot kicks off when Algie secretly sends a sample of Jane’s spit off for DNA testing, and the results reveal a potential cousin. Jane’s dilemma about whether or not to meet this cousin is momentous, as is the question of what to do with the knowledge if and when they actually do meet. I love where Horan takes this subplot, and how wonderfully the love and support of Jane’s family plays into it. On a side note, the moment when Algie tells Jane why he sent her spit off in the first place is probably my favourite scene in the entire novel; the surprising and unexpected depth of vulnerability of Algie’s true motivations tugged at my heartstrings, and made me want to give him a big hug.
Overall, Epically Earnest is a really sweet, feel good romance. Younger readers looking forward to their own proms may enjoy it even more than I did, but overall, this was a fun, fluffy way to spend a few hours.
Thank you to Clarion Books for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.