Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (2014)

Spurred on by my enjoyment of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-BM) which was a lively and entertaining “modern retelling” of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma yesterday but with much less enthusiasm.

While I will agree with other critics that his writing style of lovely and his story-telling thoughtful, this novel was not all-together satisfying to read. Indeed, I nearly put it down multiple times over the course of the day but lacking in anything else to read at the moment, I continued.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the novel focuses on several men and women living in a small English country village who all are single, either by choice of circumstance. Enter Emma Woodhouse, rich, entitled, selfish socialite whose boredom draws her into a series of more and more ridiculous attempts at match-making among her friends and family…all the while loudly proclaiming to all who will listen that she herself has no need for love or marriage. “Many women made a bargain and endured the consequences stoically and with good humour, putting up with tedious and opinionated men in exchange for material comfort. Emma would never do that herself, of course; she had no need to — she was well off, so well off in fact, as not to require a man at all.”

Surely McCall Smith could have updated young Emma’s views of marriage and love just a bit, as very few modern women seem to be searching for any dull, wealthy man they can find to save them from spinsterhood, as they no doubt did when Austen wrote in 1815.

I am unable to tell if it is because Austen’s novel Emma  — which I admit I have only a hazy recollection of and remember reading it with lukewarm enthusiasm — was itself a bit insipid and lacking in depth or if it is McCall Smith’s retelling that feels that way. A story that is about the matchmaking and the search for love should feel more urgent and romantic. Instead these characters all leave me feeling as if they simple made a decision to pair-off for logistical reasons, rather than for passionate ones. The entire novel makes the process of finding a “suitable match” feel bloodless and cold, with an underlying feeling that some of the characters may be pairing up with someone who is not entirely desirable just to be done with it.

Even the titular character’s romance is regulated to just a few short, unimaginative paragraphs, it seems that her romance materialized out of nowhere with very little thought or warning, leaving her proclamations of love to feel entirely insincere. Indeed for a character who throughout the novel has foresworn love or marriage in any guise, to reverse her position on the institution with so little wooing shows the author’s lack of imagination. Even if Austen’s Emma could be convinced so quickly that she loved a man she largely ignored for the majority of the book, surely McCall Smith could have modernized his Emma slightly and demanded that she might take more convincing…as any modern women hopefully would.


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