Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Review: Emma

IMG_3381Recap: In this classic British romance novel, Emma is one of the most popular and well-liked bachelorettes in her community, but no matter how hard she tries, she is completely oblivious to the true wants and needs of the people around her. If you’ve seen the movie Clueless, it may or may not surprise you to know it’s loosely based on this Jane Austen novel from 1815. Emma is the “Cher” character — or rather, “Cher” is the Emma character — focused so much on matchmaking her friends that she misreads signals for her own opportunities at love — or misses them altogether. In the first half of the novel, she is intent on fixing up her new and lower class friend Harriet (“Tai” in Clueless if you’re still following along with the comparison) with her friend Mr. Elton. But every signal that she believes proves Mr. Elton likes Harriet is a sign he actually loves Emma. The result? Both Mr. Elton and Harriet are crushed.

This ripple effect continues throughout the novel as she encourages Harriet to refuse a proposal from a lower-class man, finds herself with feelings for a man who’s secretly already engaged to another woman in town and then tries to set Harriet up with a man who she ultimately realizes she, herself, actually has feelings for.

The gist: Emma is a hot mess. Movie producer Amy Heckerling had it right; she really is clueless. But it’s hard not to root for her anyhow. She is not the greatest friend, but she does try, and as a 21-year-old, can we really blame her for misreading signals from men? Weren’t we all doing that at that age?

Analysis: The truth is I bought this book at a used book sale years ago and never read it because it’s roughly 450 pages and 200-year-old British literature. Very intimidating. But once I started it, I found that it was incredibly easy to follow — much easier than some other classic literature I’ve read. Essentially, it’s a teenage rom com set in 1800’s Britain! It’s quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the Miss Bates character who can’t seem to stop talking. We all have someone like that in our lives.

Aside from the obvious romantic themes and tropes (falling for the one who’s been there all along, etc. etc.), Emma also speaks to much larger themes that still resonate today, including social and economic status as well as gender roles. I never realized how much of Clueless thereby also deals with these themes; it clearly does, but obviously not to the level and depth of Austen’s literature. Emma herself is a strong feminist, refusing to marry for most of the novel. It is more important for her to care for her ill father than to find a man to support her. She also makes her matchmaking decisions based on status, swaying Harriet away from the “poor man” and toward the more upstanding “rich man.” (This can be interpreted negatively in that she is focusing on who can better provide for her friend or positively, in that she doesn’t care for the class system at all and sees no problem in her friend dating outside her class.)

It’s an interesting look at much how much and how little has changed in the 200+ years since Emma was first published.

MVP: Mr. Knightley. As yet another love interest in this complex romance novel and brother of Emma’s brother-in-law, he is the only one who — though bitter and defiant at times — is frank and says what he means. When it comes to Mr. Knightley, there are rarely ulterior motives. He knows what he wants from the beginning and bides his time until he gets it, but never fakes feelings like many of the other characters in this novel.

Get Emma now on your Kindle for $8.00

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Review: The Marriage Plot

Recap: It’s 1982, and three young adults have just graduated from Brown University. They are now entering the “real world.” The Marriage Plot is told in sections split up between these three main characters. It starts on graduation day and then takes us backward through their college experiences, and forward into the year after graduation.

There’s Madeleine, the heroine and Victorian literature enthusiast. She’s beautiful, smart, and moves in with her boyfriend, Leonard, after college. Leonard is a brilliant, handsome guy, studying science under a fellowship at a lab on the Cape. Leonard’s brilliance becomes more and more shadowed, however, by his severe case of manic depression. There’s also Mitchell, Madeleine’s close friend, who has been in love with her for years. Constantly pining for Madeleine, Mitchell sets out on a post-grad journey across Europe and Asia, as he considers attending grad school for religion and tries to define his own religious beliefs.

Analysis: The novel’s title itself, The Marriage Plot, makes it seem like this is a book about love. But this is not a story about love. This is a coming-of-age story. Maybe it was my poor reading, but the whole time I kept wondering “Who will Madeleine end up with?” It wasn’t until the conclusion that I realized a) that’s not the point of the story and b) it’s obvious from the beginning that only one ending makes sense.

This “obvious” ending is clear because of the direct parallels author Jeffrey Eugenides makes between The Marriage Plot and great literary pieces of our time. Throughout the novel, Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell often reference authors like Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and James Joyce, and their works. The references are heavy in the beginning of the novel, during the characters’ pretentious college years. As they continue to pop up throughout the book, it becomes clear that these classic stories influence Eugenides’ own storytelling.

I am by no means an expert in classic literature, but here are a few examples of what I mean. In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the characters do not end up with the ones they love; they often end up quite sad. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story about a man who tries to identify his religious beliefs. Knowing how these stories end, it’s possible to predict how The Marriage Plot will end. Eugenides therefore not only mentions these works in his novel, but borrows plotlines directly from them.

If you’re a literature enthusiast, you’ll understand the book well. If you’re not, it’s still worth a read for its realistic tales of college life and the difficult period afterward.

MVP: Mitchell. He’s the nerdy loner you root for throughout the book. Madeleine gets the most attention and pages in the book, but is somehow the least developed character. The story about Mitchell’s religious journey is virtually discarded at the end of the novel, but his overall arc is still the most interesting of all the characters.

Get The Marriage Plot in paperback now for $10.88.

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