19th January 2001 at 00:00
PERSUADING ANNIE. By Melissa Nathan. Piatkus. pound;5.99.

In her first novel, Pride, Prejudice and Jasmin Field (an updated version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice), Melissa Nathan turned the spirited and intelligent Elizabeth Bennet into Jasmin Field, a successful newspaper columnist, and Mr Darcy into an English film star in the style of Ralph Fiennes.

In her second, Persuading Annie (based on Persuasion), her Anne Elliot - Annie Markham - works in an art gallery and volunteers for the Samaritans, while Captain Wentworth (whom she first met when they were students) is a thrusting but honourable young management consultant. Since being turned down by Annie seven years ago, he has been pouring his heart out to a therapist.

Nathan (herself a magazine journalist) translates Austen's basic framework - characters, theme and plot - into urban "chick-lit" for Bridget Jones fans. Annie's father is not a spendthrift baronet, but a vain PR tycoon whose business is in trouble. When Louisa (renamed Sophie) has her accident, it is not a tumle from the Cobb in Lyme Regis, but a mugging in a dark alley in London.

It would be unfair to look for Austen's subtlety, sharp irony and delicate touch in this contemporary version of her last completed work, but Nathan's book - though perhaps overly sentimental - contains plenty of wit and satire in the Ab Fab mould. When Annie's sister Katherine, addicted to shopping and alternative therapy, is told she must give up a few luxuries, she replies incredulously: "Do you have any idea what happens to your colon if it isn't washed out regularly?" Persuading Annie is a lively, exuberant read in the idiom of today's young women. Four-letter words abound but there are no explicit sex scenes. Like screen adaptations, with guidance Melissa Nathan's books can offer teenagers (especially girls) a modern and accessible way into Jane Austen.

And those who enjoy her novels already will admire the audacious ingenuity with which Nathan lifts her characters from their genteel provincial world and recreates them in 21st-century Hampstead.

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