Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

My book club tries to read a classic every year. And I love Jane Austen. So you'd have thought I'd be thrilled to re-read Emma, wouldn't you? In fact I tend to dislike Emma the character rather a lot. Having read it multiple times already in my life, and disliking her more each time I read it, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and opted to skip it this go-round. Instead, I picked up this modern retelling of the tale by Alexander McCall Smith to see if I could muster up more sympathy for her in a more modern setting. And I did, at least to an extent. McCall Smith does a good job of capturing and updating Austen's Emma without entirely losing the things that made the plot run.

Starting back with Mr. Woodhouse's birth and early life, McCall Smith fleshes out what makes the distracted, hypochondriacal man tick. Once that is established, he moves on to Emma's childhood and upbringing, explaining satisfactorily how two young girls in the present day would end up with such an old fashioned thing as a governess. The back story that doesn't come with Austen's Emma is actually rather protracted here but since the characters have already been rounded out by Austen, having more history on them, explaining how they came to be who Austen made them is rather nice. The plot, an immature and meddling young woman trying to pair up all the wrong people because of her own unintentional snobbishness and preconceived notions, is maintained and there are certainly moments of humor. Because the focus on adult Emma, recently finished with her interior design degree at university, and her matchmaking doesn't happen quite as early as in the original, the secondary characters are not nearly as full and integral to the story here, leaving the focus on Emma's unchecked unkindnesses to those she professes to love and her unasked for interference in their lives. McCall Smith's Emma seems to have a dawning self-awareness sooner than Austen's Emma though, which is not a bad thing. In contrast, Mr. Knightley is far less present in this novel than he was in the original. The courtship is foreshortened and the ending is speedily dispensed with in about two pages.

Although I've focused on the differences between the Austen and the McCall Smith, this is easily read by those who have never read the original. In fact, people looking for a one to one concordance between the books will be disappointed. Some situations have been left out and others elaborated on in ways that Austen could never have imagined two hundred some years ago. But this isn't Austen; it's McCall Smith and reads like it. McCall Smith is a charming writer and his version of Emma is a satisfying one. He has modernized it but not beyond all recognition. There are still some small threads that are oddly old fashioned but readers familiar with his gentle, courtly manner of writing will not be surprised. Not a bad re-telling over all and one that many Austen fans will appreciate, as will those folks coming to the story for the first time.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I've always disliked Emma as well. I think I've only read it twice.


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