Emma: A Modern Retelling
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, 2015. 361 pages. Fiction.
In this modern retake of Jane Austen's classic, Emma Woodhouse, the youngest daughter of the anxiety-ridden Mr. Woodhouse is home for the summer after completing her university degree. At loose ends, Emma decides to make it her business to improve the lives of the people around her. But does her interfering cause more harm than good? This is the third book in the Austen Project, a writing challenge where some of Britain's top authors are creating modern versions of Austen novels.
I think Emma is one of Austen's most difficult books to adapt to a modern setting, especially for an author who simply focuses on the romantic aspect of the book. Austen herself felt that Emma was a character that no one but she could ever love, most likely because what really motivates Emma the majority of the time is a good-natured selfishness. It is hard to figure out why Mr. Knightley would ever fall in love with the self-centered Emma, when romance is made the central theme of the book. The genius of McCall Smith's adaptation, then, is that it is not a romance novel he is writing; he writes a coming-of-age (or, better, a coming to awareness) book that happens to have some romance on the side. As McCall Smith himself says, this a book where Emma gains moral understanding and kindness - gaining George Knightley in the bargain is just a side benefit. By following Austen's original premise and focusing on social issues and personal growth, the author is able to keep the same feel of the original while encapsulating it in modern storylines and characters. The writing is pure McCall Smith and his regular readers will love hearing his voice in a new type of novel.