Monday, June 13, 2022

Book 326: Polite Society


"As Dimple waited for Fahim, she doubted Ania's wisdom for the first time. There was no convincing reason why Fahim would be attracted to a woman like her, obviously provincial, still at times cloddish, when he had the pick of those sophisticated gazelles at media parties. Ania had kept insisting that she could see the signs. but Dimple was worried about the dangers of being wrong. It had taken her months of discipline and training to calm the anxieties that assailed her—worries about her position as some kind of interloper—and now her equilibrium was again wrecked. Ania was too fearless and her friendship too effortless, spilling from her without consequence, leaving a trail of easy generosity and advice. For Dimple that same friendship offered elation and play, but also apprehension and uncertainty, a fear that it would all collapse and crumble to dust."

Dates read: July 9-12, 2019

Rating: 7/10

A few years before I started this blog, I started making a concerted effort to read the much-bemoaned classics. I wasn't an English major (Psychology for me!), so apart from the standard high school mandatories like Gatsby and Mockingbird, I had read actually quite few of them. And what a surprise it was! While some of them deserve their boring reputations, many others have survived the test of time because they're wonderful reading experiences. Turns out I love Jane Austen! Who knew?

When she wrote Emma, Austen famously described her as a heroine that she didn't think people would really like. A smart, pretty, rich girl isn't exactly the most sympathetic of heroines. Clueless proved that Emma could hold up well to adaptation, so when I read that Mahesh Rao had decided to transplant the book to modern-day India in Polite Society, I was curious. Instead of Emma Woodhouse, we have Ania Khurana, beloved daughter of wealthy businessman Dileep. Ania is bored with her socialite life in the most elite circles of Delhi, and when she successfully sets up her spinster aunt Renu, she decides her next project will be her new friend Dimple, who works in PR. Dimple grew up in the country, and though she met a nice guy, Ankit, when she first moved to the city, finds it hard to resist when Ania tries to steer her towards up-and-coming reporter Fahim.

While many aspects of the original are here, Rao puts his own, darker spin on some of the side characters: both the Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax types have very different storylines than Austen gave them, and Dileep is drawn dangerously into the thrall of a faith healer type called Mr. Nayak. The broad strokes of the story play out more or less as expected, though: Fahim does not fall for Dimple and marries impulsively shortly thereafter, Ania grows closer to her longtime family friend Dev (standing in for Mr. Knightly) even as she develops a flirtation with the Frank substitute, Dimple and Ankit come back to each other eventually. But while Austen wraps things up neatly and happily, it's much more unsettled at the end of Polite Society.

Taking a beloved story and adapting it is a tricky thing to do...too close to the original, and it barely seems worth the effort, but too far away and you risk enraging fans. I think Rao struck a good balance, adding plot twists that gave the story new complexity. I especially liked the addition of perspectives besides that of Ania, which had the effect of giving Dimple, Dileep, and even Fahim so much more richness and interest. I appreciated the generally edgier tone and the way it undercut a story that has a lot of romantic wish fulfillment and froth built into it. The story the book tells is compelling, and I think would work even without having read Emma (though the understanding that the heroine is supposed to be kind of annoying is definitely helpful to come in with).

While I enjoyed a lot of what this book did, it was not entirely successful. Rao's prose lacks the wit and verve that really mark Austen as a master of her craft, and is less charming as a result of the inevitable comparison. And while many of the side stories were a welcome addition, it felt like there were too many to give them all time to really develop. The generally lightweight tone of the book (even in the heavier way Rao rendered it) would be compromised by the addition of too many extra pages, but I think another 50 or so would have given it all a little more room to breathe. Overall, though, I found this book very good and would recommend it both to those who already love Emma and those who haven't experienced it yet!

One year ago, I was reading: The Death of Vivek Oji

Two years ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Three years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Four years ago, I was reading: Love Medicine

Five years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Six years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

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