I recently reviewed a book called Dangerous to Know: Janes Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues Ed. by Christina Boyd (you can check my review here), a collection of stories about some of the male characters (the rakes and rogues of the title) in Jane Austen’s novels and loved it. The editor of the book kindly got me in touch with some of the authors featured in the book, and now I have some of their books waiting in my e-reader. And this is the first book I’ve read, partly because of the cover, partly because of the title (well, I’m a writer after all), and partly because I had read great reviews of the book, that has received the prestigious RBRT (Rosie’s Book Review Team) Award for historical novel. Although I’m a member of this fabulous group of reviewers, I can’t catch up with all the great books that come up, but if you have not checked the list of awards yet, I leave you the link here (and if you’re an author or a reviewer, don’t miss the chance to explore Rosie’s great blog and her team).
I thank the author for providing me a copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
This book is a reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. I’m not an Austen scholar (I wouldn’t even call myself a devoted fan) but I enjoy her novels, some more than others, and I have always been intrigued by new versions, adaptations, and sequels of well-known books (not only other books but also movies, plays, ballets, TV programmes…). What gives a novel, or a film, its meaning? What makes it recognisable? Can we change the setting, the historical period, the medium used, and make it maintain its identity somehow? Can we improve on the classics, or can we create a completely new work that retains some of the charms of the original, but is different enough to gain new readers and make it accessible to a new generation? I Could Write a Book manages to do many things at the same time. The action is moved from Regency England to 1970s Kentucky. The setting is a rather gentle and charming small town, where everybody knows everybody, and where although modern ideas are making inroads, there is still an underlying culture of Southern tradition, hospitality, class, and good manners. Appearances are important, and although some of the old families have lost their properties, or at least no longer manage them in the manner they were used to, names and reputations still count for a lot. The Woodhouse and the Knightley families have known each other forever, the men of both families created a joint law firm, and the children grew up together (and now two of their children are married). Emma, by her own confession a modern young woman, although annoying due to her meddling in the lives of others and her self-assurance, is more likeable than Austen’s eponymous heroine. She has a big heart, and she truly loves her family and puts their needs before her own. She suffers several tragedies at a young age. Her mother ends up in hospital severely disabled when she is very young and she keeps looking after her when others find her condition difficult to cope with. And when her father suffers a stroke, she decides to give up her dreams of a college education away from home and transfers back to the local college. Although financially she has no problems, and she can (and does) access help, her way of looking after the father is heart-warming, and that gives her a depth of feeling that is not always evident when we observe her behaviour in the social sphere.
Emma lives vicariously through the love lives of others, and in that, Emma Woodhouse is no different to the original. Although some of her match-making works well (it is difficult to know if it is because of or in spite of her), she can be remarkably clueless at times and thinks that she knows what others think much better than she does (notwithstanding her degree in Psychology). I won’t rehash the plot, as you are probably familiar with it, be it through the novel or through one of the many versions available. Let’s just say that there is much plotting, interfering, match-making, misunderstandings, blunders, embarrassing moments, and yes, plenty of romance. And in this version, much Southern charm and tradition.
The story is told by two of the characters, by Emma, in the first person (and that allows us to understand her motivations, and see that although misguided at times, there is no true malice in her, and she doubts herself more than she lets on), and by George, in the third person (until the last chapter, when we finally hear from George in his own words). George is a true gentleman and a worthy hero of one of Austen’s novels, although he is not perfect. He has a long list of short-term girlfriends and can be, at times, as lacking in insight as Emma. But he is tall, handsome, and he always behaves impeccably (something we cannot say of all the male characters). The two points of view help us get a wider perspective and we get to see Emma from the point of view of somebody who knows her well and still loves her, with all her faults and quirks. We also get a good insight into the different roles played by men and women in the society of the time and get a good understanding of what being a member of such society is like, from an insider’s perspective.
The setting works well, as although it is a more modern period, is not the present, and the location and the type of society reflected in the novel translates well the characteristics of the small, tradition-laden era of Austen’s novel. Emma’s naïveté is justified in part by the insular society she lives in, and by her self-appointed role of her father’s carer, that keeps her somewhat isolated and less likely to mix with others outside of her social circle. Although she is not the easiest of characters to identify with (her lifestyle is very different from what most of us have experienced and many of her difficulties are of her own doing, rather than due to any hardship or real-life problems), she does love her family, and although we might not like to be reminded of it, we have all been, young, naïve, and believed we knew everything.
There are misguided characters, some not-so-nice characters (some can be mean but I would hardly call any of them truly bad, although Tim is very self-involved, although he is a politician, so it fits) and some lovely characters as well. (I was particularly fond of Nina and Helen and found John, Emma’s father, endearing and sympathetically portrayed). The locations and the social setting is brought to life beautifully by the author, who shows an in-depth knowledge of the subject, and I wished I could have been there with them at many of the events (although I’m afraid I’d stick out like a sore thumb). There is even some sex, although not very descriptive (and as you know I’m not a lover of erotica or sex in novels), and the final chapter brings us up to date with the fates of the characters, with some lovely and funny surprises.
The novel has some touching moments, plenty of romance, some moments when we feel embarrassed on behalf of the central character (and many when we want to strangle her), and some funny ones. It is a light read although it will make us think about family and remind us of our youth. There are also some great questions for book clubs at the back, which I think would engender much discussion for readers.
In sum, an amusing and light read, a great reimagining of Emma, in a fabulous setting, with a heroine we’ll love and hate at times, a gorgeous love interest, and a great period piece for those who love the genteel South.