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July 27, 2011

Rohit Reviews: Emma


You may be forgiven, dear readers, if you were slightly aghast upon examining this latest blog post's title, for it is not often that I, purveyor of all that is somber or melancholy, deign to engage anything—let alone literature—that may be considered happy, much less romantic. Rest assured, however, that my decision to read (not to mention review) Jane Austen's 1815 romance and comedy of manners, Emma, was not taken in a fit of lovesick idiocy which I decried as recently as this past weekend. On the contrary, my reasons for choosing this book (part of my binge a couple weeks back) were quite deliberate. First, after a year-to-date of mostly melancholy or downright depressing tales, it was time for a change. Even I have my limits when it comes to despair. Second, and perhaps equally as important, I needed to introduce some variation into my reading repertoire; one cannot simply alternate between Russian and (God forbid) American literature forever, after all.

Emma satisfied both these conditions quite well. For one, Pride and Prejudice is a favorite and it remains one of the few books I have ever read that made me laugh out loud, a feat for which I have much respect for its author. For another, I knew what to expect from Emma, if for no other reason than having watched Clueless (more than once, I am not afraid to admit); there would be no soul-crushing ending here. Lastly, I was told by a reputable source that this was the better novel vis-à-vis the other Austen I might have considered, Sense and Sensibility.

I imagine most of you are acquainted with the story, so I shall not dwell on it long. Briefly, Emma recounts the mishaps of Emma Woodhouse, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat living in a small town outside of London, as she attempts to play matchmaker among her friends and family, and winds up finding love in the most unlikely of places. (God, am I writing the promo for a dreadful romantic comedy or what?)

The novel excels, as did Pride and Prejudice, in its character development, though Emma herself is not a particularly likeable heroine. While she's witty and goodhearted, she is also conceited, coddled, conniving, and simultaneously, incredibly innocent and naïve. It may be a realistic portrayal, but beautiful, spoiled rich girls aren't likely to garner sympathy—at least in this reader. Other characters, however, while not necessarily likeable, are nonetheless quite amusing. Between the bumbling Miss Bates, the silly and valetudinarian Mr. Woodhouse, and über poseur, Mrs Elton, hilarious dialogue ensues.

Where the book fails to meet its mark is in its story development. The plot depends on simple devices to advance the story and none of the romances are particularly well-developed, certainly not with the skill as was exhibited in Pride and Prejudice. Pages of exposition are followed by lurches of love and marriage. Perhaps that is merely an unavoidable consequence of a story told from the perspective of a young and inexperienced woman, but it is frustrating nonetheless.

More gravely, I found the same criticism that I have leveled at Pride and Prejudice, a book I adore, in arguments with that same reputable source (and longtime adversary) on whose recommendation I chose Emma to be equally if not more valid with this novel: reading about the trials and tribulations of landed gentry in early nineteenth century England simply cannot be considered a serious enterprise. Where are the weighty topics that we wretched souls forced to live out a life of futility must confront? Where are the philosophical undertones? How does this book make me think? These clowns are worry about drafts in the hallway causing a dinner party to be canceled, for crying out loud! Have some fucking perspective!

All that said, I still enjoyed the book and would recommend it without reservations. Weighty, it is not, but it is nonetheless a charming story with memorable characters and great comedy. As I've aged, moreover, I think I have become increasingly tolerant of books that in my early twenties I might never have engaged. Some books are meant to induce pensive contemplations (alone and in the dark, obviously); others are merely great stories; and both ought to be read.

As far as ratings go, however, the comparison to Austen's works does not flatter. Emma in my opinion was not nearly as good as Pride and Prejudice; whereas the latter was exquisite, the former is merely above average. I'm probably a 3.5 on Emma, but what the hell, I'll round up: four stars of five. (I must be getting soft in my old age.)


Aw, the softer side of Rohit. I knew you had it in you!

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