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Book Review: Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

Book Review: Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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“This had happened because she had been able to make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives: the ability to see, even for a brief moment, the world as it is seen by the other person. It is this understanding that lies behind all kindness to others, all attempts to ameliorate the situation of those who suffer, all those acts of charity by which we make our lives something more than the pursuit of the goals of the unruly ego.”

The Austen Project has had some mixed reviews; many people are Austen purists and cannot stand to see any modern retellings of Jane Austen’s beloved novels. As much as I love Jane Austen, I am a sucker for retellings. Generally they’re not amazing, but I do like reading modern interpretations. My favorite Austen retelling is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. This is the Austen Project’s Pride and Prejudice. I absolutely loved it, but I know a lot of people were not big fans. I also read Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility for the Austen Project. It was okay, but Marianne is a hard character to modernize. I picked up Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma at the library a few weeks ago. I have not read any of his other books, but was curious about his interpretation of Emma. Emma is not one of my favorite Austen books, but I decided to give this a try.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, Emma Woodhouse has just graduated from the University of Bath and returned home to Highbury, where she lives with her hypochondriac, anxious, reclusive father. Emma and her sister Isabella were raised by Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Anne Taylor, the girls’ governess. Even after Isabella married John Knightley and moved to London and Emma went off to university, Miss Taylor stayed on at Hartfield. The summer Emma returns home from Bath is full of changes for the residents of Highbury. Miss Taylor announces she and James Weston are engaged and she is moving to Randalls to live with him. Naturally Mr. Woodhouse is distraught by this change, and Emma is sad to see her governess go, even though she is 24 and way too old to rely on a governess. Emma meets a young girl Harriet Smith, who is a teacher’s aide at Mrs. Goddard’s ESL school. Emma is quite taken with Harriet, who is beautiful, but not very bright. Emma immediately takes Harriet under her wing and decides she will set Harriet up with Phillip Elton, the local vicar. Elton is independently wealthy, so Emma thinks Elton can act as Harriet's bank so Harriet can take her gap year. 

To help her matchmaking plans, Emma arranges a dinner at Hartfield and invites lots of different neighbors and friends over, including James Weston’s son Frank Churchill and Miss Bates’ niece Jane Fairfax. George Knightley is also there. When Emma sees Frank, she is attracted to him and seats the two of them next to each other, and sits Harriet next to Elton. Frank tells Emma that he would like to flirt with her, but he is actually gay. Emma decides that she is okay with that and will play along. Spoiler alert: that does not work out well. All of Emma’s carefully manipulative plans quickly blow up in her face.

In Austen’s original Emma, Emma is considered beautiful, rich, and spoiled. But for better or worse, she is not a hopeless character for me in the original. However, in this retelling, Emma is so selfish and holier than thou, even though she grew up under Miss Taylor and is friends with George, two genuinely wonderful people. Emma takes Harriet under her wing, but completely manipulates Harriet into her own worldview. She meets Jane Fairfax and asks nosy questions. She completely dismisses Miss Bates and her incessant talking. George chides her for her treatment of and behavior toward Miss Bates, but she is too stubborn to apologize to either George or Miss Bates. Towards the end of the book, she does have moments of clarity regarding her behavior. But honestly throughout the whole book, Emma rubbed me the wrong way that her redemption was not at all satisfying. Plus George Knightley, a treasure and a delight, deserved so much better than this Emma Woodhouse.

I had a hard time with McCall Smith’s Emma. A well-done retelling needs to do more than just take the original story and insert it into a contemporary setting. There needs to be more risks taken with the storyline. In Sittenfeld’s Eligible, she weaves in an outrageous reality show and Darcy and Liz have angry, hate sex long before they actually get together. These modern updates scarred some readers, but I think in order for a modern retelling to be well done, it also needs to stand on its own as a good book without the original. And in this Emma, that did not happen. If I want a modern retelling of Emma, I’ll stick with Clueless. I give it 2.5 stars.

Who is your favorite Austen leading man? Also, how wonderful is this shirt?

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