Riffing off of Jane Austen’s Emma, Katie Heany’s debut novel follows the tale of college student Harriet, who writes the advice column “Dear Emma” for the lonely and lovelorn. Just like Austen’s protagonist, Harriet is hard-pressed to take her own advice, and pines for a guy named Keith who drops her abruptly after a few dates. Keith’s new girlfriend Remy becomes Harriet’s new co-worker and friend, and when Remy writes “Dear Emma” for romantic advice about Keith, Harriet must decide how to respond.
Dear Emma is a light-hearted and entertaining read. I enjoyed the various “Dear Emma” letters throughout, and I especially loved Harriet’s sharp, sometimes snarky, responses. As “Dear Emma,” Harriet definitely keeps it real, which is why the actual Harriet was such a disappointment. I understand that the disconnect between the persona and the person is a huge part of the point of the story, and of the comedy in Austen’s original as well, but Harriet was just so self-involved and had such a lack of self-awareness that it was just annoying. For example, she makes a huge fuss about one of her best friends getting a boyfriend and not telling her all the details. I totally understand where the best friend is coming from though — given how much Harriet has complained about Keith in the previous chapters, she hasn’t really given her friends a chance to talk about their own lives, much less made it seem she’d be open to hearing about romantic successes.
And again, I understand that the character’s flaws are part of the comedy, even in Austen’s original where Austen famously admitted she’d created a heroine no one but herself would much like, but where I found Austen’s Emma charmingly clueless, and Alicia Silverstone’s Cher (in the movie Clueless, also based on Emma) adorably hilarious, Heaney’s Harriet seemed more self-absorbed than anything else.
The writing style didn’t help either. Likely, this was a deliberate choice by the author to mimic teenage-girl-speak. And to be fair, some of the dialogue did remind me of conversations I’ve overheard between high school girls on the subway. On the other hand, it’s a bit more high school freshman than college student to my ear, and it does get a bit tiresome to read lines like “I LOOOOOVE your dress” (p. 84), “OH MY GOD ARE YOU OK?!?!” (p. 83) and dialogue like:
“He just wrote to me!!!” I said.
“Read it!” said Mel. “Open it!!!”
“Are you insane??” I said. (p. 34)
OMG enough with the exclamation points!!!
I should note that I’m reviewing an advance reading copy, so it’s possible an editor toned down the incidences of multiple punctuation marks before the final publication, but I doubt it as it seems to be a key feature of the author’s style. Like I said, to be fair, it does sound somewhat realistic. It’s just that it also sounds really annoying.
That being said, the story itself is entertaining. I also liked the secondary characters like Harriet’s best friends, who are science nerds, and I was glad that they both had romantic/comedic subplots of their own. Finally, like I said, the “Dear Emma” columns really stood out, and I love how they highlighted some of the issues college students face with friends changing and romances not quite taking off as planned. It’s a lighthearted read, and a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.