I have loved Jane Austen’s Emma for as long as I can remember. Yes—I mean that literally. When I was six, my first introduction to the Regency and the magnificent world of Jane Austen began with a battered VHS copy (Gwyneth Paltrow/Jeremy Northam version) and, well, has never ended.
In fact, my first classic ever read was a neon yellow copy of Emma gifted for Christmas at the age of ten. It is now battered and torn, but will forever hold a place on my shelves. To me, the heroine Emma has always gone beyond the place of a lovable but mistaken fictional friend; she’s been in some ways, a mirror of myself. Perhaps this quality is why people love to hate her – she reflects how we all would be if given enough time, money, and influence. And that is: Sure that our way is the best way. Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society shows a world and cast of characters where this idea is everything.
Retellings can always be tricky – there’s a whole host of questions we ask ourselves. Will the modern setting give or detract something from the original? How much do morals connect to ethics, and ethics to society’s rules, and society’s rules to good behavior? Etc. etc. etc. We as readers can forgive much, including creative license with the original, as long as we find some kind of spark. Of wit, or romance, or searing visions of who we are (when we didn’t even realize it)…any or all of these can grab us and not let go. Polite Society attempts all of this, and its success depends on the reader.
Self-styled by Rao, a lifelong fan of Jane Austen, as a book that “mines a much darker seam” than Crazy Rich Asians (a book it’s already being compared to), Polite Society definitely accomplishes this vision. Ania Khurana, the 21st-century version of Emma Woodhouse, and the elite in Delhi are terrible. Oh, I can make all kinds of beautifully polite parallels between the glittering sparkle of diamonds and Ania’s society, but at the core, their world is shallow and rotting. Rao has the eye and the heart of an anthropologist. He writes the elite with all their poison, all their attempts at climbing higher and higher on their social ladder, with a just pen. In the middle of the well-written nastiness, there are surprising moments of kindness (Dev/Mr. Knightley), true interest in others (Renu Khurana/Mrs. Weston), and self-realization (Colonel Rathore/Mr. Weston).
The cast is broad, and each has at least a few pages of POV (a nice trick to see their motives and inner thoughts). There’s Dimple (Harriet), unwittingly drawn into a world of party after exhausting party – Dev (oh, lovely Mr. Knightley), interested in archaeology, literature, and staying as far away as he can from parties – Fahim (Mr. Elton), a grasping social climber — and of course, Ania (Emma), who is well-meaning yet shallow, and just beginning to be unsure of the value she puts in her ‘polite society’. A full synopsis of this complex novel would take too much time to write – not to mention give too many secrets away. Some characters are missing (Miss Bates), and some plotlines are avoided (Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill), but the storyline follows the same general flow of the original.
While this novel will hook readers for many different reasons (such as the author and Delhi setting), I foresee there being two main groups who are drawn to its pages. The first: Those who loved Crazy Rich Asians and its biting but humorous social commentary. The second: Long-time fans of Jane Austen’s books, especially Emma. This novel has ingredients that both groups will enjoy. For the latter, you will find beautiful descriptions and wit, a chance to witness Emma’s progression towards self-awareness in our era, and the always perceptive Mr. Knightley to balance her foibles. What this group will not find is a book that holds to the manners or virtue that Austen personally believed in and included in her books. Explicit sexual dialogue, talk of self-harm, and a pessimistic view of the heroine and the “upper class” makes for an often dark read that lacks the liveliness and optimism of Emma.
Now – for those of you in Group #1: Lovers of social commentary, especially of the rich and famous, Polite Society is a novel that will exceed your expectations. If you merged the cast of Clueless with the money of Crazy Rich Asians and added the sparkling despair of The Great Gatsby, you get an approximation of Polite Society. During the course of the novel, lives changed for the better and worse – and yet the world moves like silent clockwork around them. Pools are cleaned, hair is perfectly coiffed, and all the while, the elite plan marriages, and disasters. It’s quite a fascinating – and probably, very honest – portrayal, and very perceptively written.
4 out of 5 Stars
Polite Society: A Novel, by Mahesh Rao
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2019)
Hardcover, eBook, and audiobook (368) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. We only review products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons © 2019; text Katie Patchell © 2019, Austenprose.com