Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

emma mccall smithNot with a bang but a whimper…

😦

I wouldn’t have thought it possible for any of these Austen Project books to reach lower depths than Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, but I fear this one does. After Val McDermid’s surprisingly enjoyable take on Northanger Abbey, I hoped the series might be capable of redemption – I was wrong. (Go ahead – say you told me so!) There are some mild spoilers ahead…

The first few pages are quite fun with lots of little jokes about class and McCall Smith’s hometown of Edinburgh. But it’s a false dawn – very quickly the book descends into a miserable and poorly written attempt to make Austen’s observations about class relevant to today’s society.

Helpful note for authors 1: You cannot make a historical thing relevant to today if it isn’t.

The characterisation is dreadful. Emma may have been unlikeable in the original, but one can see why she got away with it. Firstly, she is superficially pleasant and, secondly, she is socially superior to everyone she meets and they are conditioned by society to respect her. In this version, she’s simply a nasty, selfish, small-minded piece of work, to whom no-one in the real world would give the time of day. Her main belief seems to be that women should set out to catch a rich husband so that they don’t need to work – slightly different from Austen’s women who had no opportunity to work. Harriet, not the brightest candle in the chandelier in the original, is so thick in this one that it’s amazing she remembers to breathe. Mr Woodhouse, our selfish hypochondriac, is probably closest to the original, but I fear it doesn’t work in this one, since he is far from elderly and perfectly fit, meaning that he’s just annoying and repetitive, with no possibility of gaining sympathy from the reader.

Knightley’s barely in the book until near the end – McCall Smith obviously has his own reservations about the ‘grooming’ aspects of the original, so has simply removed him from Emma’s upbringing and reduced the age difference by several years. Instead he has been replaced by Miss Taylor – now a cross between Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee – as the sole influence in the revolting Emma’s upbringing. Not a recommendation to hire her to look after your own sprogs, if you want them to turn out…human. Frank and Jane, also hardly in it really, are awful – silly little people trying to make each other jealous for no good reason.

Nanny McPhee...or Miss Taylor?
Nanny McPhee…or Miss Taylor?

Helpful note for authors 2: Make at least one character likeable/believable.

I’ve mentioned that several of the characters are hardly in the book. This is because McCall Smith has decided to fill the first quarter of the book with descriptions of Emma’s upbringing and childhood, not to mention Mr Woodhouse’s entire life story. We get Isabella’s courtship with John Knightley, tons and tons of stuff about Miss Taylor, mainly so McCall Smith can continue his quips about Edinburgh, and the whole history of Emma’s education at school and university. What does this add to the story? Well, tedium, primarily. When Harriet and Mr Elton finally appear their whole story is dealt with in three or four meetings, culminating in what really comes close to an assault on Emma by a drunken Mr Elton. Should I mention the nude Harriet scene and the lesbian overtones? Nope, can’t bring myself to. But Mr Elton does provide an opportunity for McCall Smith to make what is clearly his favourite joke, that he drives a BMW Something-Something. I say favourite joke, because he repeats it an amazing nine times. Mind you, he repeats the joke about the English language students asking the way to the railway station an astonishing 22 times…

Helpful note for authors 3: If a joke isn’t very funny first time, it won’t get funnier with repetition.

Although only half the length of the original, the book feels twice as long. Each little bit of story is surrounded by pages and pages of repeated descriptions of Emma’s selfishness or Harriet’s stupidity or Mr Woodhouse’s obsession with germs. And in case we fall into the Harriet spectrum of intelligence, McCall Smith spells out his conclusions about Emma’s character all the way through, so we can be sure to keep up.

It had been an important summer for Emma, as it had been the summer during which moral insight came to her – something that may happen to all of us, if it happens at all, at very different stages of our lives.

Helpful note for authors 4: If you have to spell out your point, you’ve failed to make it.

Would I recommend this? Only to someone I really didn’t like…

* * * * * * *

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

PS I will be going on to re-read the other Austens over the next year or so, but the Austen Project will have to limp along without me. If they really had to do this, they could have done it so much better, by truly transplanting the stories to the modern day and looking at some of the real issues for women in today’s society instead of pretending that we still face the same ones as Austen’s heroines. With the exception of McDermid, who admittedly had an easier task with the much lighter Northanger Abbey, this has done nothing to enhance the reputations of the authors involved to date – both of whom perform significantly better when writing their own stories in their own style.

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Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Almost totes amazeballs!

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

northanger abbey mcdermidThis may be the most disappointing thing I will read this year. After the abomination that was Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, I was confident – oh, so confident – about the inevitable direness of Val McDermid’s entry for the Austen Project –  Northanger Abbey. There I was – poison pen at the ready, sarcasm ready to drip like venom, scalpel sharpened to rip the very heart out of it – and dang me if it doesn’t turn out the book’s not too bad at all! In fact – and you’ll never know how much it hurts me to say this – it’s actually quite good fun.

To be fair, McDermid’s task was always going to be easier than Trollope’s. While Austen’s Sense & Sensibility is a serious book which casts a penetrating light on aspects of the society of her time that no longer exist in ours, Northanger Abbey is a much lighter concoction that deals with the eternal subjects of true and false love, and obsession with literary trends. So, while I remain unconvinced of the need or merit of updating Austen at all, this is probably the one that lends itself most easily to updating.

After an hour of being whirled and birled, of Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants, of pas de bahs and dos a dos, they broke for refreshments. Cat was uncomfortably aware that she was sweating like an ill-conditioned pony and that Henry seemed positively cool by comparison.

Edinburgh Book Festival - in sunshine!
Edinburgh Book Festival – in sunshine!

Our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. And, as in the original, she’s even more thrilled when she is befriended by Bella Thorpe, never thinking that Bella may see her only as a way to get closer to Cat’s brother James. When tickets arrive for a Ball, Susie sends Cat off to get lessons in Scottish country dancing, where she meets the handsome, charming, mysterious and slightly exotic Henry Tilney, who also happens to be a superb dancer (slight pause while we all swoon, girls). All it would take for Henry to be perfect would be if he happened to live in a Gothic Abbey in the Borders and had some mysterious secret in his family…and what a coincidence! He does! And soon Cat is invited for a visit to Northanger Abbey, where she can indulge her romantic imagination to the full…

Before she could open the book, there was a clap of thunder so loud and so close that Cat cried out in terror. The room was abruptly plunged into darkness and a second deafening thunderclap vibrated through the air. Cat curled into a ball and moaned softly. What terrible powers had her discovery unleashed?

Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey
Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford House seems like a good likeness for Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story but has made some changes to the characters and plot to make it fit better in a modern world. Cat isn’t quite as hero-worshipping as Catherine from the original – she’s very taken with Henry and ready to learn from him but she’s got plenty of character of her own. McDermid has solved the problem of modern technology by siting the Abbey in a reception blackspot, and has used the current obsession for vampire novels very amusingly as a replacement for the ‘horrid novels’ of the original. (I hoped they might be real books – Poltergeist Plague of Pabbay, Vampires on Vatersay – but alas! It appears not.) McDermid is a Scottish author, of course, so gives an authentic and wryly humorous flavour of the hugely popular Edinburgh Festival, often as noted for the peculiarity of some of the productions as for their quality. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.

Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?

Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival
Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival

The book isn’t perfect and there are a few things that grated a bit. John Thorpe, a money-grasping buffoon in the original, appears to have turned into some kind of anti-Semitic fascist in this one, which seemed a little odd. The updating of the language has replaced Austen’s deliciously light wit with a heavy blunt instrument in too many places. And the big reveal at the end, as to why Henry’s father should suddenly have changed towards Cat, is the main disappointment of the book – McDermid’s choice of reason was sadly very typical of her and not at all within the spirit of the book, I felt – old or new version.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

However, overall I have to admit that I enjoyed this quite a lot and, while it will never compete with the original for any true Austen fan, it is a light, fun read with enough of an edge to avoid being just throwaway chick-lit. So this grumpy and disappointed reviewer is left with nothing to do but congratulate Val McDermid on achieving the impossible – making me give a positive review to one of these hideous Austen Project books. I shall now go off into a dark corner and pout.

PS Do trendy young things really say things are ‘Totes amazeballs’? Both Trollope and McDermid seem to think so. It’s rare for me to be glad I’m no longer groovy…

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine.

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Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

sense and sensibility trollopeWhy???

Warning! This review may involve wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention cursing…of both kinds. Persons of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now. And on the assumption that no-one will be interested in this who doesn’t know the original, there are some mild spoilers…

😡

The Austen Project is a strange little idea to rewrite all the Austen novels for a modern age. Why? It certainly can’t be because the originals are unreadable – I’d imagine they are more popular today than they have ever been. One can only assume they see it as a money-spinner. I’m delighted to say I got this book free – and even then it was too expensive.

My recent review of the real Sense and Sensibility highlighted that I think it deserves its place as a classic because of the light it casts on the restricted lives and opportunities of the sons and daughters of the ‘gentry’ in Jane Austen’s time. This fake S&S concentrates on the same class, but is set in the present day. Unfortunately, society has changed so much that the premise doesn’t work. In order to make the story fit into today’s England – where opportunity for the middle-classes is almost infinite, where women are freer and more equal than they have ever been and where the norm is for people without money to do that revolutionary thing and get a job – Trollope has decided to make most of the characters completely feckless and thus entirely unsympathetic.

He gave an almost imperceptible smirk. ‘The obigations of the heir…’
‘Oh my God,’ Marianne exclaimed. ‘Are you the heir to Allenham?’
He nodded.
‘So fortunate,’ Belle said dazedly.
Marianne’s eyes were shining.
‘So romantic,’ she said.

The story begins with the Dashwood family losing their home at Norland. Not because it’s entailed – oh, no! Because Mr Dashwood never bothered to marry Mrs Dashwood (Belle, heaven help us!) and so his great-uncle left the house to his legitimate nephew rather than his illegitimate nieces. Already I’m wondering what society this reflects? Certainly not the one I live in, which stopped giving a…fig…about legitimacy back sometime in the seventies and where even the crown is now allowed to pass down the female line. To make it work, Trollope has had to make it overly complex and unbelievable…and we’re only at Chapter 1.

Poverty - Trollope-style
Poverty – Trollope-style

So the poor Dashwoods, with only £200,000 and a modern cottage given to them by other rich relatives, have to face up to living within straitened means. Why? Has the concept of going to work never occurred to any of them? Poor Elinor has to give up Uni. Why? Can’t she get a student loan and live in a bedsit like everyone else? To be fair, she does get her rich relatives to pull strings to get her a job. But the rest whine endlessly about lack of money making me want to a) hit them collectively over the head with a brick and b) explain that living in a four-bedroom cottage, running a car and popping up to London every weekend to go to parties isn’t really poverty!

Then we have Marianne (M!) – in this version a hysterical maniac, rather than the overly emotional but sweet and loving girl of the original. Suffering from constant asthma attacks (presumably because when we get a cold these days, we just take paracetemol and get on with it), she spends her time wheezing, gasping, sobbing, throwing tantrums and being revoltingly rude to everyone, and yet being so lovely throughout that no man can withstand her (invisible) charm. To explain this strange anomaly, Trollope tells us approximately 15,000 times that M is stunningly gorgeous, even whilst receiving Intensive Care. I shall brush quietly past the sex episode…

Joanna Trollope
Joanna Trollope

Shall I tell you about Wills(!)? Of course, single motherhood tends not to lead to death these days, so how does Ms Trollope resolve this conundrum and ensure that we understand that he’s a bad lot? Well, by making Wills, (who’s not just the ‘hottest boy in the county’, by the way, but a complete ‘shagbandit’ – charming) into a drug-pusher! Yes, little Eliza is a junkie…

Pah! I can’t bear to talk about this monstrosity any longer. I will leave you to imagine whingy Ellie, pathetic Ed, and Mags, the nightmare teenager with an iThing habit. I will ignore the fact that all the married women stay at home to look after their children. I will pretend I didn’t notice that we now have a Wills, a Harry and – yep, that’s right – the Middletons. I won’t even mention the youtube ‘trolling’ incident…and I refuse to think about the gay party-planner, Robert Ferrars, and his marriage of convenience…

‘One hundred parties in the last year!’ Mrs Jennings said. ‘Incredible. That’s one party every three nights that wouldn’t have happened without him!’
‘Too silly,’ Lucy said, looking straight at Elinor. ‘Brainless. My poor Ed must be cringing.’
‘Amaze,’ Nancy said from the sofa. ‘Amazeballs.’
Elinor took a step back.
‘Well, I suppose it’s good to be good at something.’

A fake book that tells us nothing authentic about today’s society – might work as a fluffy romance (except aren’t you supposed to like the heroines in them?) but doesn’t work as a serious novel, isn’t funny enough to be a comedy and is an insult rather than an homage to a great classic. Read at your peril…

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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