No, Pops: Book Review of Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published April 7th 2015
Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Fiction, Romance
From Goodreads:
The summer after she graduates from university, Emma Woodhouse returns home to the village of Highbury, where she will live with her health-conscious father until she is ready to launch her interior-design business and strike out on her own. In the meantime, she will do what she does best: offer guidance to those less wise than she is in the ways of the world. Happily, this summer brings many new faces to Highbury and into the sphere of Emma’s not always perfectly felicitous council: Harriet Smith, a naïve teacher’s assistant at the ESL school run by the hippie-ish Mrs. Goddard; Frank Churchill, the attractive stepson of Emma’s former governess; and, of course, the perfect Jane Fairfax. This modern-day Emma is wise, witty, and totally enchanting, and will appeal equally to Alexander McCall Smith’s multitude of fans and to the enormous community of wildly enthusiastic Austen aficionados

Calling all Jane Austen fans!

Revolt!

We have another horrible Austen adaptation on our hands brought to us again through the Austen Project. It was complete torture for me to continue with this one. But I am stubborn and I always try to finish a book, no matter how bad it is. People told me that it wouldn’t be good and it received poor reviews on Goodreads but I guess I just wasn’t prepared on how bad it would really be.

Let’s begin with the start of novel. How do you begin a novel with little or no mention of the main character?! This went on for at least 60 pages. You had to deal with tedious descriptions on how far Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondriasis could go and going into too much detail on Ms. Taylor’s background. With all this unnecessary details, you never get the feel or the connections for that characters which is vital for a beginning of a story. And when Emma did finally enter the scene, most of the time you get a description of her education background, not her upbringing. That is another problem with this work: the characterization. Unlike with Austen’s original work, you get a personal connection with the characters. I did not get here. I think McCall Smith was trying so hard to mimic Austen’s characterization style but going into too much unnecessary details severely hurt his chances.

I am now writing a character that no one but myself will much like”

That is what Jane Austen said to described Emma Woodhouse and it is clearly true. I had discussion with friends and others where Emma is their least favorite Austen novel. But while Austen’s Emma was a snob, underneath that superior attitude was a compassionate soul. You did not get that with Smith’s Emma. In this novel, Emma is completely unlikable. She’s selfish, condescending, sexist (her views on love and marriage are outdated), small-minded, basically, and excuse my language, a total bitch. In Austen’s work, Emma and her father have a close relationship and she cares for him deeply. Here, you don’t get that sense here. You find yourself wondering how it McCall Smith perceived Emma’s relationship with her father turned into this dysfunctional relationship.

The depiction of Emma’s and Harriet’s relationship was really out there. Smith implied that Emma’s initial attraction was of a sexual nature. He enforced this theory by having Emma painting Harriet’s portrait nude. I don’t know where and why Smith decided on this interpretation. But if you are going to have a character who is so set against being in love and only marrying for money to having sexual desires for a woman, at least try to be consistent. This theory just really didn’t fit in with the story and just added to the problems  of the poor narrative structure.

But the thing that really irked was Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship, or I should say lack there of . A relationship that is the main focus of the story and the characters have a total of THREE conversations throughout this 368 page novel. How are we, the reader, suppose to believe that these two characters fall in love when they have little interaction with one another? There was no jealous sentiments due to Emma’s close relationship with Frank Churchill (another lacking relationship). I don’t think Smith and the rest of the world were reading the same Austen novel.

I could go on and on with the many flaws with this book. But, then I would be like this novel, dragging on to unnecessary means. I can’t judge Alexander McCall Smith’s status as an author because this is the first book I ever read by him and I don’t think this is the right book to judge him fairly on. That being said, I don’t think McCall Smith truly didn’t either read or understand Emma. In order to do any adaptation of an Austen novel, whether it is a modern adaptation or continuation of the original, you must have a real passion for not only the novel but the author as well. I just did not see that here. I believe that Smith lacked the personal connection that most of us Austenites have and that flaw gave him less determination to this narrative justice. You can see that with an article he did a month ago, viewing the passion for Austen as an industry. Also, authors have to remember when doing a modern adaptation of a 18th century, most of the ideals that were common during the time may not be relatable to the 21st century. For example, Mr. Weston’s reasons for giving up Frank Churchill were plausible during Austen’s time. But I have hard time believing that in the year 2015, a father, who just lost his wife, would just easily give up their only child, when he had the means to support him. Smith could have changed that part of the story.

The Austen Project and Harper Collins, I implore to you. STOP doing this project. It is not working. Like I said before, you are sullying up Austen’s hard work. Your intentions may have been true but sometimes bad things come out of good intentions.

So if you love Jane Austen and the novel Emma, don’t read this book. If you love Austen but you didn’t like Emma, don’t read this book. If you are just a fan of reading overall, don’t read this book. You shouldn’t put yourself through this torture. If you want a good modern adaptation of Emma, watch Clueless. I’m going to be like Emma and say that Clueless is far superior than this travesty.

Now I have to go reread Emma and forget that this torture ever happened.

Overall Rating: 1 out of 5 stars.

(NOTE: To my British readers, Do you call your father “pops”? Emma call it her father that and I didn’t know if it was a common thing to say. It was very annoying half the time)

3 thoughts on “No, Pops: Book Review of Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. Bummer. I read a review in the Detroit Free Press the other day that was glowing, and was hoping I had discovered some great new adaptations! Ah well, I suppose re-reading Austen herself is never out of order.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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