Emma by Alexander McCall Smith is a “modern retelling” of Jane Austen’s classic novel. It is part of the Austen Project, which pairs six contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. Joanna Trollope reimagined Sense & Sensibility, and Val McDermid reworked Northanger Abbey. Emma is the third project book to be finished.
Emma is my fourth favorite novel by Jane Austen but the first Austen Project book I’ve read. Emma is fairly unlikeable for most of the original novel, and she is in McCall Smith’s version as well. McCall Smith captures the overall feel of the original quite well. It is set in today’s England but retains Austen’s gentle and refined tone from 1815 Regency England. Emma interferes, matchmaking with abandon, creating one successful pairing but upsetting others. The characters from Emma are all here – fretful Mr. Woodhouse, wise Miss Taylor, secretive Frank Churchill, talkative Miss Bates. And of course, Mr. Knightley – the perfect gentleman.
Reading this version of Emma felt both familiar and unfamiliar. I disagreed with a few of McCall Smith’s modern plot points (like Emma wanting to paint Harriet Smith in the nude), but spending time with his version was definitely like visiting with an old friend. If you are looking for a novel that fondly reminds you of how much you love Jane Austen, I recommend McCall Smith’s Emma. If you are purist who can’t imagine her characters in modern times or the hands of another writer, I recommend rereading Austen instead.
I read an advance reader copy of Emma. It is scheduled to be published in April 2015.