Source: checked out from my local library
The summer after university, Emma Woodhouse returns home to live with her widowed father and launch her interior design business. Apart from cultivating grand career plans and managing her father’s hypochondria, Emma busies herself with the two things she does best: matchmaking and offering advice on everything from texting etiquette to first date destinations.
Happily, this summer presents abundant opportunities for both, as old and new friends are drawn into the sphere of Emma’s counsel: George Knightley, her principled brother-in-law; Frank Churchill, the attractive stepson of her former governess; Harriet Smith, a naïve but enchanting young teacher’s assistant at the local language school; and the perfect (and perfectly vexing) Jane Fairfax. Carriages have been replaced by Mini Coopers and cups of tea by cappuccinos, but Alexander McCall Smith’s sparkling satire and cozy sensibility are the perfect match for Jane Austen’s beloved tale.
In December each of my book club members chose a "guilty pleasures" book to read. It was so interesting to see what each person picked. I went around and around trying to choose a book and finally decided on this one. I'm not sure why, because I generally don't much care for retellings of Jane Austen's books or any spinoffs. They rarely do her justice and often have characters going so far astray from what Austen portrayed that they feel like different people. Sadly, this book was no exception.
The publisher's summary references Smith's "sparkling satire and cozy sensibility" but, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, I do not think that phrase means what they think it means. I haven't read any of Smith's previous books (and he is a prolific and hugely popular author) so I can't speak to how well he interpreted Austen's original in his own style. But "sparkling satire" and "cozy sensibility" I didn't get. In fact, I really felt like Smith had smoothed over the much of the satire and the coziness that is inherent in all of Austen's books.
Smith took the idea of making the book a "modern retelling" seriously and worked in homosexuality, drunken driving, reality television, and the struggle of land owners to keep Britains grand homes afloat, none of which was a bad idea but even most of that didn't work for me. It often felt like he was forcing these things into the story. He repeatedly referenced homosexuality but didn't make any of the characters gay, making it more of a punchline than an part of life.
As for his treatment of the characters, Smith made Emma much more self-aware which might have been a good thing except that it meant that readers could see that she knew what she was doing might be wrong but she continually excused it. In Austen's hands, it always felt like Emma was (as the movie adaptation's title indicates) clueless that what she's doing might be harmful. Harriet Smith wasn't just naive, she was also a little stupid, George Knightley felt flat in his relationship with Emma (although I did like the way Smith fleshed out who he was apart from Emma), and Jane Fairfax never got to be forgiven for being standoffish. To be fair, Frank Churchill was still a heel, Miss Bates was well portrayed, and I quite enjoyed the fleshing out of Mr. Woodhouse.
It's clear that I should probably step away from Austen retellings and adaptations, at least where books are concerned. This is a fan favorite of the books that are considered part of The Austen Project. Check out Laurel's (Austenprose) reviews of three of the adaptations. She enjoyed this one much more than I did and she certainly knows her Austen!