Review of Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith


A Modern Retelling

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, New York, 2015. 361 pages.

Oh Emma, Emma – I was reminded by reading this book that she’s really an annoying character.

But I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, and I’ve been eagerly following the new modernized Jane Austen retellings as they’ve come out, and on top of that I love Alexander McCall Smith’s writings, so of course I wanted to read this one.

But I almost stopped reading in the middle. Emma’s snobbishness and superiority was a little more tolerable in the original, somehow embedded in the English class system. For a modern young woman to assume she has the right to manipulate people because she can? Not so endearing.

It was somewhat endearing to occasionally notice Emma sounding like the ladies from the No. 1 Detective Agency or philosophizing like Isabella Dalhousie, but the characters put into the modern day weren’t as likable to me.

Also interesting was that the modern author took more time with the backstory than Jane Austen did, and spent about half the book before the classic novel even got started. Then some of the crucial scenes in the classic were skimmed over rather lightly.

I have to say, though, that I did enjoy a small twist at the end, as the tables get turned a bit on Emma. It’s also a much nicer ending for her father than the original.

I don’t think of my problems with the novel as Alexander McCall Smith’s fault. Emma really is an annoying character, an interfering, manipulative busybody who thinks herself better than everybody else. Somehow I bought her view when it was dressed up in a historic period in England’s history. Weren’t the gentry actually better than everyone else? But modern day Emma I wanted to slap.

Still, I did like the way this Emma thought over her shortcomings at the end. I felt like she gave them more weight and took things more to heart than classic Emma did.

But most of the retellings have made me want to revisit Jane Austen’s classics. This one made me realize that next time I see a reworking of Emma, I’ll be much happier giving it a miss.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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