Thursday, April 30, 2015

SENSE & SENSIBILITY by Joanna Trollope and EMMA by Alexander McCall Smith

As long as Jane Austen fans don't take themselves too seriously, they may find themselves enjoying books in The Austen Project--rewrites and updates by best-selling novelists of all six Austen novels. So far three have been published:

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, British author of contemporary and historical fiction

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish author of many series including The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, Scottish author of 27 crime novels (so far)

Still in preparation is Pride & Prejudice by American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, and still to be assigned are Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

I've read the first two.

I always enjoy Joanna Trollope's domestic adventures of mildly troubled middle-class English suburbanites, so I looked forward to her rewrite of Sense & Sensibility. So did the book group at my church. We were somewhat disappointed.

The assignment is admittedly difficult: how do you bring people living with 19th-century inheritance laws and outdated courtship practices into the 21st century? Trollope stayed close to Austen's story, updating it with automobiles and electronic devices, but her characters were still stuck with 19th-century ideas and behavior. No doubt she was doing as she was told, but if she had allowed herself to stray further from Austen, her book might have been less anachronistic and more believable. If you're not already a Trollope fan, don't start here.

McCall Smith, on the other hand, did not trouble himself about anachronism (or even chronology, as it happens: the age difference between Emma and Mr Knightley varies wildly from page to page). Facing the same problem that stymied Trollope--how to portray 19th-century dilemmas in 21st-century garb--he mostly just makes us laugh. Mr Woodhouse is a hilarious neurotic and food faddist. John Knightley is a smart-mouthed London photographer. Mrs Goddard ("Mrs God") bakes cakes with funny ingredients. Mr Elton marries an Edith Piaf impersonator (who can't pronounce "Piaf"). Frank Churchill pretends to be gay.

Jane Austen's story is very much present, and you'll enjoy this book more if you're familiar with it. But mostly this is a book for McCall Smith fans, of which I am one.

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