In the latest installment of the Austen Project, McCall Smith (The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, 2014, etc.) catapults snobbish matchmaker Emma Woodhouse into the 21st century.
His latter-day Emma possesses all the youth and beauty and a good deal of the wit of Jane Austen’s heroine. She also shares her predecessor’s less appealing qualities. Bossy and controlling as a child, she's only more so now that she's 22 and bent on launching her own interior design consultancy. In creating Emma, Austen supposedly set about depicting a character that nobody but she would like very much. McCall Smith paints a similarly challenging if ultimately fond portrait of a young woman whose hubris causes complete chaos before she’s forced to acquire some humility and self-knowledge. Devotees of the original will recognize the likes of Miss Taylor, the no-nonsense governess who all but raises Emma and her sister after they lose their mother, and George Knightley, Emma’s friend and the only person brave enough to challenge her. Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father, has evolved from a “valetudinarian” into a germaphobe crank, though to get around questions of how he manages the upkeep on their country pile, McCall Smith also makes him a retired inventor who years earlier patented a valve for the liquid-nitrogen cylinders used by dermatologists. Modernity is mischievously accommodated elsewhere, too: The flashy young vicar’s nouveau riche wife is recast as a TV talent show contestant, while dim, pretty Harriet Smith, the illegitimate product of an affair in Austen’s telling, here becomes the progeny of a single mother and a sperm donor. Emma even finds herself questioning her sexuality.
In less capable hands, it could all seem clunky and crass. Instead, McCall Smith has written a delightfully droll, thoughtful novel that reflects on money’s enduring role in relationships as well as on the nature of this meddlesome heroine’s long-lived appeal.