Sunday, May 8, 2016

REVIEW: Dear Emma by Katie Heaney

The Book: Dear Emma

The Author: Katie Heaney

Genre: New Adult, I'd say. It focuses on college-aged characters, romantic entanglements, and female friendship in a contemporary, social media-fueled environment.

How I Found It: It caught my eye in Target's books section. On the offchance it was Austen-related I picked it up, and once I found out it was indeed Austen-inspired, decided to give it a try.

My Review: Heaney decided to do something interesting with this book, and something I'd like to see done more often in modernizations: instead of focusing this Emma-inspired story on a modern Emma Woodhouse, she took Harriet and put her in the spotlight! "Emma" is the pseudonym Harriet uses to write an advice column for her college newspaper, anonymous to all but her two roommates and her editor. Even without a true Emma Woodhouse character to play off of, Harriet is still the introvert without much dating experience that she would likely be if Austen's story really were brought into the modern world.

When I say this story is Emma-inspired, I mean that the inspiration is really just a light sprinkle. There is no Knightley, no Elton, no Frank Churchill, none of the basic plot or characters of Emma, essentially. What Heaney chose to do, she writes in the supplemental materials at the back of the book, is to basically take some of the elements of Harriet and Emma's relationship in the original story, put them in a modern context, and run with it. Specifically, what must it feel like for Harriet to be lead to fall in love with several men, only to consistently have those men choose your effervescent, beautiful best friend over you?

Heaney's Harriet is put into this position by Keith, a classmate she is attracted to after a fun road trip that was more or less a date. Keith seems to be attracted to her, too, but when he abruptly stops contacting her, Harriet is confused, annoyed... and obsessed. After consistently stalking his social media accounts, she finds out he's started dating someone else... her beautiful new work study coworker, Remy. Unsure of where she ever stood with Keith, Harriet never lets on to her interest in him, and so she and Remy become friends. But when Remy writes to Dear Emma for relationship advice, what's a girl to do?

This book was a two-star read for me. It wasn't absolutely horrible by any means, but it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been, either. While I try as hard as I can to evaluate a book on its own merits, in the Austen community that's sometimes hard to do without judging it by both Austen's original framework and by other adaptations that have come before this one. I'll try to break down what my problems were with this book by examining what I felt Heaney could have done that other adaptations have or have not.

  • Leaning on some of Austen's existing characterizations and relationships might have helped flesh out the characters more. Because this is one of the loosest Austen-inspireds I've ever read, it's also the only one where I've ever felt like the author didn't take enough inspiration from Austen. I so liked what Heaney wanted to do here! Right on to focusing on Harriet, an introverted Austen character, as opposed to the extroverted and fearless Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet! But... well, she failed to make Harriet all that interesting. She borrowed a bit of Emma's backstory: mom dies young, and Harriet is raised by a single father. Except, unlike in Emma, Harriet's father doesn't figure into the plot or Harriet's characterization at all. We get one telephone call between them, and that's it. This was a failing of the Pemberley Digital-adapted Emma Approved as well: they specifically mentioned feeling as though Emma's relationship with Knightley was more interesting and more appealing to their millennial audience, thus choosing to focus on that relationship instead of including Emma's relationship with her father as well. Given that this was Heaney's audience as well, I think she also felt the urge to stick with her millennial-aged characters, and that was to the book's detriment. Emma's relationship to Mr. Woodhouse is one of the things that helps show readers she isn't the shallow, self-absorbed creature we sometimes think she is! I felt the lack of depth to Harriet and the rest of the characters keenly, and I think looking more closely at Austen's characterizations--what the characters talk about, how they spend their time, who they spend their time with--really could have helped Heaney make her characters as memorable or at least as interesting as Austen's.
  • The characters just didn't have much depth, period. It wasn't just that Heaney didn't include enough characterization from Austen. It was that she didn't include much characterization at all. For almost the entire book, no reason is given as to why Harriet decided to become an advice columnist. Why does giving advice to people appeal to her? Why do the people on her campus trust her column so much? A male coworker of Harriet's reads the column at one point, so it clearly has a degree of popularity beyond the people writing to it for advice. Why that is... well, we don't know. Likewise, interesting tidbits are brought out about other characters and then never explored: Remy mentions seeing therapists frequently over her lifetime, and thus has valuable advice to give Harriet about self-esteem, but why she's seen therapists is never gone into. The details Heaney does choose to focus on were sometimes bizarre. I know that one of Harriet's roommates puts loose hairs on the shower wall while showering so they won't clog the drain, but barely anything else about her. Her roommates were also so interchangeable I sometimes had to flip back a couple pages to remember which one was which. Compared to the distinct and memorable characterizations of, say, Clueless, I felt that this book was lacking. And speaking of Clueless, Keith here is basically a Josh clone without the endearing parts: must all college-age Knightleys be philosophy majors?
  • The book didn't pass the Bechdel Test by much, and I felt the female characters were limited. As pointed out in this excellent takedown of the awful Becoming Jane, all of Jane Austen's novels pass the Bechdel Test! At some point in all of Austen's novels, female characters discuss something other than a man, whether that's another woman, an accomplishment like drawing or playing the pianoforte, being a governess, novels or poetry... the list goes on. Heaney's female characters talked about boys, and alcohol, and school, and... that was about it. Boy-talk dominated most of the book, as Harriet obsesses over Keith, and I wished I got the sense that these girls had more to their lives than what boys they were interested in. Now that some time has passed since I read the book, one of the only Test-passing conversations I remember in it is Remy and Harriet talking about a humorous anecdote involving a fire drill.
  • I just wanted Harriet to move on from Keith already. Harriet and Keith go on one outing that could constitute a date, after knowing each other for a short period of time, and make out once. That Harriet was so hung up on him for almost the entire book made me sigh. I wish Harriet had figured it out earlier that he just wasn't that into her! She slammed Keith and men like him in her advice column for so easily shifting from girl to girl, but until she finally came face-to-face with him, I really didn't feel like she was over him. While Heaney's initial conceit sounded fantastic, I don't think she built up the relationship between Harriet and Keith enough to make me feel like Harriet was right to be upset that he stopped contacting her. An explanation would have been nice, and his behavior was a jerk move, sure, but you hung out and made out one time. Move on!
  • Lack of diversity. None of the characters are anything but straight, and there's no mention of there being any characters of color--two things modern Austen-inspired fiction really has to work on. However, I was very glad that Harriet, while she isn't a virgin, is relatively inexperienced with sex. I get tired of most TV shows presenting every single teenage character as embarking on sexual relationships while they're still in high school and having tons of experience by the time they're in college. Characters who are virgins or inexperienced are a rarity and I'm grateful to Heaney for providing one, a character those of us who are introverted and not as experienced with the opposite sex can relate to.
While Heaney's book wasn't all bad--it was an easy read that I found enjoyable on a train commute, and her idea was original, if poorly executed--I wanted so much more from this book than I got. If she had focused more on Harriet and Remy becoming friends more than Harriet's relationships with her two interchangeable roommates, I would have appreciated it more. I felt shortchanged of the Harriet/Emma dynamic that Heaney seemed to want to explore based on her initial conceit for the book. As a result, I don't think any readers coming to this for the Emma-inspired portions will be satisfied... but neither can I recommend this as a book on its own, as it felt too undercooked to be satisfying. If you're at all interested, pick it up from your local library.