They may be written by the same author, but they are very different books. #23 is the latest in the series of #1 Ladies' Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine. It's a gentle, delightful read, mainly because McCall Smith's characters feel as familiar as slippers, even to someone like me who has only read a couple of other books in the series. The plot ambles along, it's interesting...enough. But the point is to get to hang out with Mma Ramotswe and her friend and co-worker (and sometimes thorn in her side) Mma Makutsi and all the other endearing folks the author has created. Of many charming moments, my favorite might be when Mma Ramotswe uses her "traditional build" as a method of self defense by sitting on an opponent. It's a gentle, lovely read that carries you along like floating down a river. The perfect escape.
The second McCall Smith is his take on Jane Austen's classic, Emma. Being a big fan of the original, I was curious to see what he would do in this modern setting. Unfortunately, I think he got it all wrong. And for so many reasons. One is that there's way too much backstory. Austen manages to get us to the meat of the book with economy and brevity. McCall Smith takes ages to get there, meandering uninterestingly through Mr. Woodhouse's marriage, the source of his wealth and his phobias, how Isabella (Emma's sister) met her husband and the Knightleys' background. Not that this author had to stick slavishly to the plot lines of the original, but all that stuffing isn't needed, and it dilutes the important tale, which is about Emma.
But the main flaw is that he manages to turn Emma herself from a flawed but charming character into a distinctly unlikable one. And if Emma isn't appealing, the entire story falls apart. She is a young woman learning how to be an adult, how to identify and try to overcome her flaws, and, basically, grow up. Yes, she has unpleasant characteristics, but this Emma is just flat out awful. It's unimaginable that Mr. Knightley is in love with her, or that anyone tolerates her at all.
While it was fun seeing what he did with it and how he twisted himself into knots explaining why Emma has a governess (why bother? just turn her into an aunt, or an older friend, or get rid of her altogether) and why Frank Churchill has been sent off to live with an aunt and uncle (still hard to believe), as an overall read it lost the humor and humanity of the original. Amy Hecklerling did SO much of a better job in Clueless. Her Emma, a/k/a Cher, was adorable and warm and funny and lovable in addition to being controlling and a snob -- and she learns her lessons and becomes a better human being. McCall Smith should have paid more attention to that Emma and he might have learned a bit or two about how to modernize a classic.
P.S. Many thanks to E. for lending me both books.