Published by Pantheon
Publication date: April 7th 2015
Alexander McCall Smith takes a turn at adapting Jane Austen in his newest novel, Emma: A Modern Retelling. Don’t call for the smelling salts diehard Austen fans, he does not commit the unpardonable sin of veering too far off course from her classic. Emma is still Emma as are all the other characters right down to their names. What have changed are the times. Now the Woodhouse money comes from a patent for a medical device that ensures neither Mr. Woodhouse nor any of his children will ever have to work.
There have been numerous retellings of classics and while it may not seem that difficult it can be because the author has two sets of readers to please—those who read the classic and want to adhere to it and those who did not but may be less forgiving about modern details. McCall Smith handles both with aplomb by giving us the character Emma as we expect but also fleshing out all those who surround her. This is especially true for Emma’s father whose backstory is being born to a nervous woman during the Cuban missile crisis thereby creating a man with an obsessive fear of change.
They would have to talk about something because when people visited you had to say something to them and they had to say something back to you. It was different when they lived with you; then you could either spend time in silence, not having anything fresh to say, or you could say whatever came into your mind, not expecting any response.
Of Emma herself, the change is largely superficial. Now she goes to university just to go to London and studies interior design. She is a dilettante who loves to shop and is certain she knows best how to make others happy—namely by doing things her way. She is not a mean girl simply one who does not think of others when she speaks and acts.
Emma: A Modern Retelling is as welcome as spring and the warmth and flowers it brings. With a tone that evokes Austen but freshens her up a bit McCall Smith makes this light novel a pleasure to read. And if he changes things up a bit towards the end so much the better. I don’t think Austen would mind.