Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith, narrated by Susan Lyons, updates Jane Austen’s tale of a young woman in high society who starts meddling in the lives of those around her. Smith’s Emma Woodhouse is far more brazen in her comments of others, and its clear that when she returns from university that she wants to make her mark by making people happier. Unfortunately, taking her interior design education and applying it to the relationships of her friends and neighbors is not a good fit. Lyons does an excellent job with the narration, and she really knew which parts to emphasize.
Unlike her sister, who is happy to meet a man and start a family, Emma doesn’t have a conventional future in mind. She wants to start her own business in the suburbs, rather than in London, which suits her hypochondriac father well. He thinks London is a place that will make people ill, but his eldest daughter takes off with her new husband to begin their family there. Meanwhile, Emma is content to stay in the village and take the summer to assess her options. Smith follows the original plot pretty well with his rendition, with many of his modern elements woven in well, but some of the main conflicts appear glossed over — beginning and ending swiftly.
One area that is tough to take is Emma’s harsher characterization, which can be attributed to the much harsher and self-absorbed nature of today’s society. However, how Emma is still given a pass in a modern society where class does not hold as much respect or weight as it once did in Austen’s time is left unexplained. Smith creates a different backstory for Emma and Mr. Knightly, which works in this modern retelling, but may not win points with Austen’s fan base. Mr. Woodhouse, however, is treated with a bit more respect than he was in Austen — he’s a little less ludicrous, which was a refreshing change. The governess, however, seems to be a mouthpiece for the author, steering Emma in the right direction and the relationship between the two seems flat.
Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith, narrated by Susan Lyons, was a mixed bag with modern updates, like including cars and women going to college, but lacking in the obsession with selfies, cellphones, and other technology. It also was mixed in terms of Smith’s treatment of the characters and the original story. While Knightly was a guiding force for Emma, here he is relegated to the sidelines and a new character emerges, the governess.
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