Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: "Emma" by Alexander McCall Smith

Given the option, I'd choose Mr. Knightley over Mr. Darcy every time. While I like the plot of Pride & Prejudice better than Emma (and I vastly prefer Elizabeth Bennet to Emma Woodhouse), I've always preferred Knightley to Darcy. I don't know why I felt like sharing that tidbit ... I guess I just had to get it off my chest!

Anyway, I picked up Alexander McCall Smith's retelling of Emma on a whim at the library the other day. This novel is part of the (now defunct) Austen Project featuring retellings of Austen's work by contemporary authors. I loathed Sense & Sensibility, I liked Northanger Abbey, and I'm afraid of reading Eligible (a Pride & Prejudice retelling). What would Emma bring?

Mixed feelings, that's what!

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.

I enjoyed Emma more than I thought I might, for one reason: Alexander McCall Smith's writing. This is the first of his books I've read, and I greatly enjoyed his dry wit. I also liked the deeper dive into Mr. Woodhouse's backstory—what made him the fearful man that he is.

What I didn't enjoy? Emma herself. I think that's probably universally "Emma," but what a brat! Also, there was hardly any Emma-Knightley interaction, so when they did get together, my reaction was, "Why?" And I didn't feel like the Harriet Smith story translated well at all. So my recommendation is this: definitely pick up an Alexander McCall Smith book ... but give this Emma a pass, and, if you're looking for a modernization of the story, just give Clueless another watch. 3 stars.

Note: This book is absolutely PG-rated. There are maybe one or two very mild curse words and some adult themes.

Buy the book.
Read my reviews of other "Austen Project" novels: Northanger Abbey (4 stars) and Sense & Sensibility (2 stars).

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and he was a law professor at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland. Visit him online at, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed this book from my local library and chose to review it. The opinions expressed are my own. Also, some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click the link and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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