A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic about a young woman whose arrogant interference in her friends’ romantic relationships nearly ruins her own.
This is the third entry in the Austen Project, where each of Jane Austen’s classics is tackled by a modern author. So far the results have been mixed. Joanna Trollope’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY was a disaster in my opinion. On the other hand, Val McDermid did an amazing job with NORTHANGER ABBEY. I like her retelling better than the original. With EMMA, Alexander McCall Smith falls somewhere in between. There’s nothing here to send an Austen fanatic into hysterics, but it doesn’t quite shine as brightly as it could, either.
EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING is a witty book full of gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. Austen’s plot is basically a story of a young woman’s emotional and moral maturity wrapped in the gloss of comedy. Smith gets this. His version is funny and offers Emma a clear path of growth as she learns the difference between charity and kindness, sympathy and condescension. Smith also successfully translates the social/economic world of the original into the 21st century. This was probably the biggest failing of Trollope’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY.
The problem I have with this book is that it starts too early and by doing so throws itself entirely off balance. The first 58 pages have little to do with Emma at all. We barely see her until her college days (around page 70). Instead, we get a detailed history of the relationship between Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor. On the one hand, Emma’s father is one of best parts of the book. I love how Smith makes him an integral part of the overall plot. But Miss Taylor dominates the first several chapters then pretty much vanishes until the end. Smith repeats this strange authorial decision with John Knightly, brother to the novel’s (kind of) hero. We get this long, detailed courtship of how John and Isabella meet, marry, and breed then they’re largely absent forever after.
These early missteps lead to larger difficulties. We meet Emma herself so late, we don’t have much time to bond with her. This makes her pushy and high-handed behavior seem due to nastiness rather than to a failure of understanding. Further, her growth arc is rushed, the lessons and the epiphanies they lead to are too close together and too close to the end. Sure, along the way we’re treated to some wonderful additional characters with fun histories, but that’s all beside the point. This is Emma’s story. Her journey is the one that counts most.
A secondary problem caused by the extended initial back story is that it leaves no room for the the serious discussions of morality, of what is right and what is wrong, of what it means to care for others as much as or more than the self, that McCall gives us toward the end. These longish sections of exposition would be a challenge to a plot’s forward momentum under the best of circumstances. In this case, they stop the plot dead just at the time when it should be, if not speeding, at least trotting briskly toward its resolution.
Despite these issues, EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. I enjoyed it enough to add it to my “keeper shelf” of books I plan to reread. I just wish it gave us more EMMA.