All Work All Play Podcast

Keep This Off the Record by Arden Joy


CW/TW: one of the side characters has a stalker ex-husband

Abigail Meyer and Freya Jonsson hated each other in high school. And, from Freya’s rude words to Abby to the drink Abby launches into Freya’s face at their reunion, it’s safe to say that a decade hasn’t changed anything.

Unfortunately for them, Will, Freya’s producer/date for the reunion (Freya is a TV anchor) falls for Abby’s best friend Naomi, so they’re going to have to figure out how to be around each other. Abby and Freya’s friends seem to think all of that antagonism comes from a place of passion. Can a group of meddlesome mates turn their hate to love?

I have a strange relationship with this book because I read it before knowing a piece of information that is critical to fully appreciating it: Keep This Off the Record is a retelling of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Unfortunately, because the book’s blurb doesn’t mention this fact and it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve read the play or watched the 1993 adaptation with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, I didn’t pick up on it while I was reading. Although it’s noted in one promotional quote from another author on Amazon and Netgalley, I didn’t see the quote until days after I’d finished reading the book.  

As a result, I’d never felt so conflicted about a book I couldn’t put down before. And I am serious about the unputdownability, because my bladder screamed at me a few times after I’d say to myself “okay, it’s time to go pee,” only to follow the call of “one more page….” But I’d struggled with this book as a sapphic romance because it was the least engaging part of the story when I read it.

The premise of high school rivals becoming present-day lovers worked pretty well. As with many of these situations, they learned that the old perceptions they’d formed of each other in the school hallways didn’t equal reality once Freya and Abby finally talked things out as adults. This felt relatable, given how every feeling as a teenager is URGENT and REAL, but can perpetuate a false narrative in the absence of actual information. Their animosity and the way it turned around quite easily also made more sense in retrospect, once I knew Abby and Freya are interpretations of Beatrice and Benedick.

Unfortunately, because I didn’t know this was an adaptation, I initially felt like my favourite aspect of the story also weakened it as a romance. Abby is part of a tight-knit friend group that includes Naomi (our updated Hero from the play), Abby’s sister Becca, and Riley, who is a nonbinary drama royal. This found family is so messy, yet full of love and true acceptance, and they welcome Will (aka Claudio) with open arms. However, while I loved spending so much time with these characters and they were the main reason I couldn’t put the book down, the tradeoff was less time spent on the romance between Freya and Abby. 

I understand why they had fewer pages together than they might if this were a straightforward contemporary romance and not an adaptation of this specific play, but I found it unsatisfying when I didn’t know it was an adaptation. At one point, I was so confused that I re-read the blurb to confirm that the book is a romance between Freya and Abby, and not an ensemble romcom. So, my initial impression was that it shone when it came to found family and their zany antics, but it ultimately failed as a sapphic romance because so many beats are missing.

It really sucks that Keep This Off the Record is the victim of a misleading blurb, because it’s a home run as an adaptation. I was immediately mortified when I described my frustrations with its story to a friend, only for her to say “Isn’t that just the plot of Much Ado About Nothing?” Because it’s my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, everything immediately fell into place for me and my perspective shifted from seeing this book as unbalanced to being impressed. It updates the plot and characters in ways that make as much sense as you’d see in any other contemporary romcom, while improving on at least one of the play’s weaknesses by giving the villain a motivation, rather than making him some random jerk. I would have loved this book so much if the blurb hadn’t led me completely astray. 

Here is the blurb, if you want to see what I mean. It’s technically correct, but it fails by placing the Freya/Abby romance in prominence, when that’s one element in a larger set of events.

Abigail Meyer and Freya Jonsson can’t stand one another. But could their severe hatred be masking something else entirely?

From the moment they locked eyes in high school, Abby and Freya have been at each other’s throats. Ten years later, when Abby and Freya cross paths again, their old rivalry doesn’t take more than a few minutes to begin anew.

And now Naomi, Abby’s best friend, is falling for Freya’s producer and close pal, Will. Both women are thrilled to see their friends in a happy relationship—except they are now only a few degrees of separation from the person they claim to despise … and they can’t seem to avoid seeing one another.

Keep This off the Record is a fun and fresh LGBTQIA+ story about the freedom to be who you are, even if that means falling for the person you hate.

I’m baffled that the blurb doesn’t prominently note that this is an adaptation, because so many readers love them and it makes it so much easier to understand why Freya and Abby don’t get as much page time as they might in a more straightforward romance or romcom. So, while the book successfully does what it’s supposed to as an adaptation, it’s so far from the contemporary sapphic romance promised by the blurb that many readers will likely have a similarly unsatisfying experience if they don’t know what they’re actually reading. 

If you love contemporary adaptations of classic literature or if you’re looking for a found family story and aren’t as concerned about the romance, I recommend Keep This Off the Record. If you want a sapphic romance that really delivers, this might not be your best choice. Now that I know what it is, I’ll be reading it again after I rewatch the 1993 adaptation.

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