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can anyone still use the constraints of Austen's world?
there aren't many societal limits on behavior any more--except here
I adore Jane Austen. I'll try nearly any variation on her work, including the delightful mysteries from Claudia Gray, who can’t write fast enough for me (The Murder of Mr. Wickham and The Late Mrs. Willoughby) and The Other Bennet Sister (Mary Bennet’s story, and she’s not at all what you think and I love her now.)
But many modern retellings of Austen struggle with the lack of constraints in modern society. Many of the strict rules Austen’s heroines had to work within have evaporated—and not just the actual rules themselves, but the types of strictures that led to them. We are far from all equal and gendered expectations and limits remain real—but in general, matchmaking parents and class distinctions feel old and told when used in a literary plot.
The most successful modern adaptations of Jane Austen I’ve read lately have all taken place in communities where limits and expectations and demands of marriage and family DO still exist, namely, Muslim and other Southeast Asian communities and especially immigrant communities, where the world is small and many cling even more tightly to the ways they were raised with than even the people they’ve left behind. In those worlds, the pain of wanting something different from what you were raised to feels deep and real, as does the threat of rebellion or ostracism. In those worlds, the Austen plots really shine—and as a bonus, if you are not yourself a part of the community, you get a window into a different culture (that will too often make you hungry!)
Much Ado About Nada, Uzma Jalaluddin—it’s rare for me to love a retelling of Persuasion, flat out my least favorite Austen book for its heroine’s passivity—but Nada is anything but passive and yet still trapped in a version of the Persuasion lost chances redemption arc. I also loved Ayesha at Last by the same author.
Kamila Knows Best, Farah Heron—it’s EMMA! We love Emma. Only this version of Emma adores Bollywood and planning a local shelter’s puppy prom while matchmaking and avoiding the censures of her father’s (considerably younger) bff and… you know the drill but trust me that you’ll love it here. I haven’t read Jana Goes Wild yet (the story of Kamila/Emma’s arch-enemy and I am here for it) but I plan to.
Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev: It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep. And off we go, for the first of Dev’s Austen-esque rides but probably not your last.
Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal—this is Pride and Prejudice but actually set IN Pakistan, making it—for me, an American who’s never traveled to Pakistan—fabulous armchair travel as well as another chance to enjoy the classic story.
That’s it from me this week! If I missed any, let me know in the comments.
If you like my recs, you'‘ll like my books! The Chicken Sisters and In Her Boots are out now—and why not treat your future self to a fun fall read in the form of Playing the Witch Card! (Pre-ordering is the nicest thing you can do for me.)
Not already on the list? Get on there! Free fun book recs weekly-ish.