Review | Emma, Alexander McCall Smith

20604787Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is a funny and intelligent modern re-telling of the Jane Austen classic. McCall Smith is a master at language, and his take on the story features many wry observations and witty one liners that recall Austen’s style.

I particularly liked the updating of Mr. Woodhouse, now a rather neurotic scientist and overprotective father. Miss Taylor as well, as Emma’s governess, is a snappy and smart foil to Mr. Woodhouse, a caring guardian to Emma yet also a very practical modern woman.

My primary reservation with McCall Smith’s version is that it feels dated. With the exception of Mr. Woodhouse, it almost feels like a Regency period piece, with only a few markers here and there to remind us otherwise. The characters’ concerns about class, social status and marrying well are at odds with the contemporary setting. Emma does have a career, but it feels tacked on rather than integral to the story. The character has always been spoiled, even in the original Austen, but Austen’s version had a charm to her that appears lacking in McCall Smith’s. In this contemporary re-telling, we know Emma has the best intentions because Miss Taylor tells us so. But this Emma seems more true than the original to hold to Austen’s prediction that Emma will be a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Perhaps the characters in this particular Austen just don’t translate well to the contemporary era — George Knightley in particular seemed more pompous and self-righteous than I remembered. That being said, Amy Heckerling did a fantastic job adapting Emma into the movie CluelessGranted, Clueless is a much looser interpretation of the original Austen, but it keeps the heart of the characters — Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is exactly how I’d imagine a contemporary (well, 1990s) Emma to act. Clueless is dated, even today, but it still feels fresher and more natural than McCall Smith’s Emma. 

I actually enjoyed reading McCall Smith’s Emma. It was a fun, lighthearted read, and while Emma and Knightley irked me at times, McCall Smith’s deftness with language kept me entertained throughout. I also understand that McCall Smith’s project with this book was in no way similar to that of Clueless, and it would be unfair to compare both. This is a funny, well-written book, that felt just a tad too constrained by its purpose. I enjoyed reading this book, but I also kept wishing that I were watching Clueless instead.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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