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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Emma: A Modern Retelling

Last Halloween, as I was trick-or-treating with my kids, I ran into one of my teen volunteers, who was dressed like this:

I didn’t immediately recognize the costume and I asked her who she was dressed as. Her reply–“Um, it’s from a movie? It’s called Clueless“–caused my wife an I to gape for two reasons: 1) my volunteer seemed to think we wouldn’t have heard of Clueless, a movie which practically defined our high school years, and 2) we had no idea that Clueless was still enough in the cultural consciousness of teens to make it worthwhile as a Halloween costume.

For readers who didn’t don’t know what I’m getting at: Clueless was a 1995 film retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, reset in the modern world of a rich Beverly Hills high school, a transplantation that makes a surprising amount of sense when comparing it to the naive landed wealth of Austen’s characters. That’s all a prelude to say that yes, teens of seemingly every generation are attracted to Jane Austen’s stories (in one form or another), particularly Emma, which some (read: me) consider to be her finest novel.

And now comes Alexander McCall Smith to bring Emma back to the novel format. Like Clueless‘s writers, McCall Smith has chosen to update the story to a contemporary setting. And he’s done such a good job of it that’s we’ve given this retelling a starred review. Not much more needs to be said than that: just bask in a classic, timeless story, retold by a fabulous storyteller.

*MCCALL SMITH, Alexander. Emma: A Modern Retelling. 256p. Pantheon. Apr. 2015. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780804197953. LC 2014025558.

After graduation from college, Emma returns home to start her own interior design business. But she is easily sidetracked by her determination to play match-maker to her friends. Always helpful, ever-opinionated, Emma attempts to bring together mismatched couples including Harriet Smith, the English Language Learning Teacher’s Assistant, hotel owner (or perhaps “it’s just a B&B”) Philip Martin, Australian raised Frank Churchill, and her old friend George Knightly. Hovering over them all is Emma’s terribly anxious father worrying over each germ and possible disaster while Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess attempts to keep Emma’s feet firmly planted on the ground. Old friends abound in Emma’s life and she is just certain that she can help them be better than they are.  McCall Smith, author of the “#1 Ladies Detective Agency” series (Pantheon) brings us his retelling of Jane Austen’s beloved tale of Emma and her misguided attempts at bringing order into a disorderly world.  Set in contemporary England, the 21st century barely impinges on the story. Texting and other modern communication is mentioned but just skims in and out of Austen-like narrative. There is just enough change from the original to keep readers wondering if the author will change the plot—could Frank really be gay? Will Harriet stand up to Emma and choose her own boyfriend?  More importantly: Will Emma mend her bossy ways so that she can find true love? VERDICT This book will introduce the cherished story to a new generation of readers—and delight those who have read the original.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark