Today I’m sharing an excerpt from Emily: A Modern Retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. The modern retellings are always an interesting puzzle–how to translate Regency characters and problems into something that makes sense in our modern times, and, since this book is YA, how to make them fit into the teenage world.
For instance, the Knightley/ Emma love story is a complicated one. Mr. Knightley’s so much older, and he acts as an uncle figure to Emma, even reprimanding her social gaffes–but then he tells us he fell in love with Emma when she was 13! Yikes! How do I capture that same quasi-family-and-a-little-creepy-but-still-convincingly-romantic feeling? (Should I give you the answer here? Blake, my Mr. Knightley, is soon to be Emily’s brother-in-law. That’s the slightly uncomfortable, almost-related connection. He’s also college aged, while Emily is in high school. That gives him the older, reprimanding feeling of the original Mr. Knightley.)
Another big piece of Austen’s novel is that Emma is so much wealthier than her neighbors, and this gives her higher social standing. How to translate that? Popularity is the currency of any high schooler, so my Emily’s popularity gives her the superiority she needs to be a proper Emma.
Then there’s the problem of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Jane’s readers understood that Frank’s family would object to his relationship with a (gasp!) poor, would be governess. But what’s the modern equivalent?
Well. I can’t give away all my secrets. You’ll have to read the book. I’ve included the first chapter below, and for the next week, I’ve dropped the price to $.99. (The promotion ends October 8th at 8 pm.) I hope you check it out!
Chapter 1 of Emily: a Modern Retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma
“Honey, I have news,” Dad says as soon as I get home.
“Oh, man.” Blake’s leaning against the sofa and giving my dad a look. “Sarah’s going to kill you. She told you not to tell.”
“Oh my gosh!” My fingers tighten on the mail I’m holding. “You have to tell me now. I’ll act surprised; I promise. She’s engaged, isn’t she?” And how did Blake find out before me?
Blake holds up both hands and laughs. “I just want it to be known that I am not the one who ruined this secret.”
“What?” Dad smiles, his cheeks rounding. “I didn’t say a word. She guessed.”
I squeal and throw my arms around Dad. I knew this was coming, but somehow it still feels unreal. I wonder how Blake feels—Sarah’s marrying his older half-brother. Weird. His half-brother is marrying my sister. It’s not like I haven’t thought about it before, but something about it actually happening makes it feel even stranger.
But I know it’ll bother Blake more. “Congratulations, brother,” I say and walk towards him, arms open for a hug.
He backs away. “Um, no. Never call me that. I’m not your brother.”
I paste an innocent expression on my face. “Do you prefer bro? Or hermano?”
“I’ve got a bit of work to do in my office.” Dad grabs his clipboard and then points a finger at me. “Remember to act surprised. You promised. And, hey, thanks for fixing the sink, Blake.”
“No problem,” Blake says, and it’s then that I notice he’s holding his work gloves. He’s still in his O’Donnell Hardware shirt and khakis, so Dad must have called him at work.
I wait until Dad leaves the room before grabbing my phone. “I’m sending you money for the sink.”
“No, Em, it’s fine,” Blake says. “I don’t mind helping out.”
“That’s more than helping out. That’s asking you to do the job you get paid for as a free house call. Besides, Dad would want you to get paid. He just doesn’t do the money.” I do, and Sarah does the cooking. I’m stoked for her, but what are we going to do without her? I set my phone on the coffee table. “Done.”
“Thanks.” He stuffs his work gloves in his pocket and gives me a long look, his brown eyes searching my face. “So are you okay about this Sarah and John thing?”
“Of course! I’m happy for them.” But I know what he’s getting at. “I’m going to miss her.” So much. Sarah’s nine years older, but she’s lived at home while she went to college and grad school. I know some people say that when your sister’s that much older, she’s more like your mom, but it was never like that with Sarah. She’s always been like my sister.
“She’ll still be close by,” Blake says.
That’s true—John’s place is just on the other side of town, so I know I’ll run into her. Highbury’s not that big.
Blake falls onto the couch beside me, into what’s pretty much his official spot. “But it’s hard for me to think of her not living here with you guys. So it must be really weird for you.”
It feels selfish to admit this, but, “Maybe I’m a little bummed when I think about her moving out. But mostly I’m happy for them. Plus, you know, I made the match, so how can I feel sad when I’m the one who made it happen?”
Blake snorts so hard a few strands of his dark hair flutter up. “Now you’re talking like a crazy person. But, please, explain your crazy. How did you make this match? No, let me guess—you were lying in bed one night and thought to yourself, ‘You know who’d be good together? Sarah and John.’ And then when they got together, you thought, ‘Wow, I’m like a matchmaker or something.’” He says the last part like a Valley girl and pretends to flip his imaginary long hair over his shoulder, which I guess is his impression of me.
I try not to laugh, even though it’s a little funny. “So I know it would kill you to add matchmaking to the list of things I’m good at, but—”
“Where do you keep this list? It must take up one whole room of your house.”
I give him a sad smile. “And yours only fits on a Post-it.”
He releases a laugh that I can tell he didn’t want me to hear.
Blake and John are our next door neighbors—except that John’s 18 years older than Blake, so John’s not really our next door neighbor, since he moved out ages ago. That means getting him and Sarah together really did take some work.
“I didn’t just lay in my bed and think about it.” I shift on the couch so I’m facing Blake. “Sarah and I ran into John at the mall one day, and he and Sarah talked a little, and I just knew—like that.” I snap my fingers to show just how like that it was, but Blake doesn’t look impressed. “So then I invited John out to dinner with us, and there were definitely sparks. You’d think that’d be enough, but Sarah wasn’t sure. No offense, but she was weirded out by how old John is.” He’s 37, and Sarah’s 25.
“None taken,” Blake says. “I’m thinking of getting him a walker as a wedding present.”
“I was going to go with dentures—because you can’t say I love you without teeth. Anyway, I did a ton more after that dinner. I saw his car at your house once and baked cookies and invited him over. Or another time I dragged Sarah out to walk Patches until we ‘accidentally’ ran into John. That took about 17 trips around the block, not to mention all the stories I had to feed Sarah about how Patches was depressed and needed an exercise program.”
Blake gives me his half smile. “Sarah does whatever you want. So does your dad. Great story, Em, but I think it would have happened without you.”
Of course he thinks that. Blake would die before giving me credit for anything. “Maybe you won’t thank me, but Sarah and John’s future children will—since I practically invented them.” In fact, I’ve made Sarah and John so happy, I should really pick another potential couple and keep this matchmaker thing going. It’d be like my service to humanity.
I start to flip through the mail I’m still holding but pause when I see the wrong name on an envelope. “Oh. We got one of Miss Bates’ letters by mistake.” That is the worst luck.
“So take it over to her.”
As if he doesn’t know exactly why I don’t want to. I wonder if I can just slip it in her mailbox.
“Geez, Em,” Blake says in his eye-roll voice. “Miss Bates is this lonely old lady who wants a little company, and you can’t just talk to her for five minutes.”
Like talking to Miss Bates ever takes only five minutes. But it’s the end of summer, so the twins—her niece Jane and nephew Ricky—aren’t due for a visit, which means Jane might not have texted recently. Maybe I’m safe then. Because there is nothing like the slow and painful torture of watching Miss Bates put on her glasses, knowing she’s going to read me every line of her and Jane’s text conversation. Seriously—Every. Single. Line.
“Just go.” Blake throws his feet up on our coffee table and settles back into the couch with his phone, like his life is peachy and relaxed. Which I guess it is, since he doesn’t have to return one of Miss Bates’ letters.
The worst part is that he’s right. Everyone on our street tries to visit Miss Bates and keep her company, and I know I don’t go enough. “Fine,” I say. “I take it you’ll be here when I get back.”
“Yeah,” he says, but he’s reading something on his phone and not even listening to me.
I step onto Miss Bates’ welcome mat, which has a picture of a sun and says, “Welcome, Friends!” I raise my hand and knock on her door and hear her answering footsteps almost immediately.
She swings the door open, and the scent of chocolate and baking wafts towards me.
“Oh! Emily! Come in!” She reaches out with one hand to usher me inside, adjusting her tight brown and silver curls with the other. “So wonderful to see you! You brought my letter. How good of you. Maria must have put it in the wrong box. She does that sometimes, you know. So much mail to sort, I don’t know how it doesn’t happen all the time. But Maria is so good, so very, very good. You’ll sit and talk with me? Of course you will. You’ll watch that side table and not trip on it? Yes, you stepped right around it. You’re not too cold? You might be. I’ll turn the heat up. There, you take that glass of lemonade. I just poured it, haven’t even touched it. It’s like it was waiting for you.”
“Thank you.” I sit on her yellow flowered couch, and she sits in her yellow flowered armchair that matches the yellow dress she’s wearing. I sip my yellow lemonade. It feels like I’m in a Coldplay song, and everything’s all yellow. “I like your dress,” I tell her.
“Do you?” She pinches some of the material between her fingers. “Thank you. You are so kind. I got it at Kohl’s. Such great deals there. I’ll pick one up for you next time I’m there. Or you can have this one! No, it has a little stain in the back. I forgot. I’ll pick one up for you.”
“Oh, no.” I set down my lemonade. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to!” She leans towards me, her thin lips drawing up on both sides. “So how are you? You must be sad summer’s ending. You’ll be a junior, isn’t that right? You’ll have to start thinking about what comes next, colleges and all that. Where do you think you’ll end up? Maybe St. Elizabeth’s, like Sarah? Yes, you’ll definitely apply there. That Sarah’s such a smart girl, so very, very smart. And have you started your applications yet? No, maybe not yet. I suppose it’s too early. But still you’re thinking about it. How is your cheer team? And gymnastics? Both wonderful, I’m sure. I don’t know how you do it all. My Ricky and Juana—Jane, I mean—she prefers to be called Jane—they do so much, too. Between the two of them, it’s the school newspaper, piano, guitar, Robotics team, volunteering at the hospital. Speaking of Jane, you’ll never guess who I heard from yesterday.”
Oh. Oh no.
“That’s right!” She claps her hands. “Juana! Or, I mean, Jane! I’ll read you her messages. You always like that.” She reaches for the phone that I now see was sitting beside her on a small table, lying in wait for me this whole time.
“That’s…nice.” I cross and then uncross my legs. “I hope she’s doing well. And Ricky too.” It’s really going to happen now. There’s no avoiding hearing the texts.
“Thank you! You are so kind. They’re both doing wonderfully—but, here, Jane will tell you herself.” Miss Bates perches her glasses low on her nose and then scrolls through her phone. “Ah! Here they are. First, Jane said, ‘Hi.’ So then I said, ‘Hi,’ but I also added, ‘How are you?’ Then she said, ‘Fine,’ and then in a different bubble, she said, ‘How are you?’ Wasn’t that thoughtful?” She lays a hand on her chest. “My Jane is so thoughtful. So I said, ‘Good.’ Then I said, ‘When are you and Ricky coming to visit?’ And you’ll never guess what she said!”
I can, actually. It’s summer, so she said they’ll come at Christmas. When it’s spring, she says they’ll come during the summer. They’re not here this summer, though, because they both went to D.C. for an internship or Something that Would Look Good on their College Apps that Miss Bates told me all about last spring. But Miss Bates is so nice, and I want to pretend I’m nice too, so I ask, “What did she say?”
“Oh, wait!” Her dark eyes dance like she has a secret gift for me. “I forgot to show you these texts about Jane’s piano recital! You haven’t seen them, have you? I don’t think you have. See, here I said, ‘How was your piano recital? So sad I missed it.’ Then she said, ‘Good.’ Then I said, ‘Can you send a video of it?’ Then she sent—”
“Yes! You showed me, last spring when she sent it. It was beautiful.”
“Oh, did I?” Her eyebrows draw together. “You are so kind to remember. It was beautiful, wasn’t it? Jane always plays so well, with such distinction. That’s just the word her piano teacher uses, you know. She always says that Jane plays with distinction. And Ricardo on his guitar—you know he’s thinking of applying to Julliard? He’s such a talented songwriter. So very, very talented. But look how off track I am! We were back here.” She scrolls down in her phone again. “I said, ‘Hi.’ Then she said, ‘Hi.’ Then—”
“You read me those,” I say, too quickly. “I mean, you can skip ahead a little, if you want.”
“I read you all of these? Even the part where she said, ‘How are you?’ in a different bubble?” She shakes her head, small wrinkles forming on her forehead. “Curious. Well, I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t attached. Hm. Then I must be here, where I said, ‘When are you coming to visit?’, and guess what she did next? You’ll never guess. She called me! On the phone! So I picked it up and said, ‘Hi!’ Then she said, ‘Hi.’ Then—”
“Called you! Wow!” I stand up and take a few steps away from the couch, towards the door. I’m a terrible person, but I can’t do this. “She must have wanted a private conversation, then. I could never get in the middle of that.”
“Oh.” Miss Bates pauses and tips her head to the side, her curls flopping gently with the tilt. “Do you think so?”
I’m nodding way too hard. “Absolutely!”
She takes off her reading glasses and wipes them with her dress. “You are so thoughtful. So very, very thoughtful. Oh, do you have to leave? But the brownies aren’t ready! They’re in the oven, you know, my own recipe. But, no, you really must go. It was so kind of you to come.” She stands and follows me to the door, reaching out a hand like she wants to guide me. “Watch that end table there so’s you don’t trip over it. I know I should move it, but I keep my magazines there. So nice to have my magazines close by. Good, you missed it. You’ll be careful stepping down from the porch now? Yes, you made it okay. And you’ll look both ways before crossing the street? Oh, bye, Emily, dear. Do come again.”
“Bye! Thanks for the lemonade!” I wave over my shoulder as I practically sprint to my door. And whew. I’m free.
When I get back inside, Blake is still there with his feet propped on our coffee table.
“Hey.” He finishes texting something and then looks up at me. “So what’d you think of Miss Bates’ news?”
“What news? Oh, ha ha.” Stupid me for falling for that. Like Miss Bates ever has any news besides what Jane ate for breakfast. I slip off my sandals and put them on the shoe rack before plopping down beside him on the couch.
“Wait.” A slow smile creeps across his mouth. “Do you really not know? But how could you not? She’s dying to tell anyone who will listen. Unless…” He gives me that look that means I’ve been rude to Miss Bates, and would it kill me to sit and listen to how Jane plays with such distinction?
“You really don’t know, do you?” He’s chuckles softly because he knows he has me now. “You can’t just sit with Miss Bates for five minutes because you’re so crazy jealous of Jane.”
“I’m not jealous!” But even I can tell the words come out too loud.
“Sure.” Blake lets his feet fall to the floor and leans towards me. “That’s why you won’t hang out with her whenever she’s in town.”
“I try!” I flip a hand in the air to emphasize my point. “But she answers questions without really answering them. I ask her what she likes to do on the weekends, and she says, ‘I like many things, Emily.’ It’s like she thinks she’s a CIA agent, and I’m trying to get information out of her.” I grab the remote off the coffee table and click on the TV and then stare at the Netflix home screen as if I think it’s the most interesting thing in the world. “Is the news that Jane had a piano recital and that she texted out of season? Because I know all about that.”
He raises one eyebrow in a way that says I’m not even close. “Maybe I won’t tell you. I should make you go back and find out from Miss Bates.”
“Ugh!” I throw a pillow at him. “You suck.”
He laughs and throws the pillow back at me, and I catch it.
“Alright,” he says. “The news is that the twins are moving in with Miss Bates. They’re both going to Highbury High this year.”
Wow. That is news. “Why?”
“You know why. Because Highbury’s a top school, and Jane and Ricardo are top students. They’re juniors this year, and Highbury will look good on their applications next year.”
“Oh. That’s cool,” I say. Even though, yeah, I’ve never been a big Jane fan, and Highbury High’s so small that it’ll be weird if I don’t hang out with her. My phone buzzes then with a text, and I check it. Elton Gallagher. Oh my gosh, that’s perfect. Why didn’t I think of him before?
I look up from my phone, the excitement bubbling out of me. “Remember my project to do a good deed every day?”
“Talking to Miss Bates doesn’t count.”
It so does. I’d already counted it for today. “Well, I’m about to do something that will be worth, like, a week of good deeds. I’m going to find Elton Gallagher a girlfriend who can make him happy again.” I trade my phone for the remote and start scrolling through shows, but I can’t concentrate on picking anything, not with this genius inspiration floating all around me.
“Elton?” Blake shakes his head. “No way, Em. Leave him alone. He can find his own girlfriend. Also, that guy…wants a certain type of girl.”
“And I’ll find that certain type of girl for him!” I hug the remote to my chest. “Just like I did for John. Elton’s so lonely! Ever since Carmen broke up with him, he’s been a sad little puddle of goo. I’m going to scrape him up and mold him into…a happier glob of goo.”
“Look.” Blake’s lips turn down in the corners, positioning themselves for full on lecture mode. “You miss Leilani and Priya, and it’ll be a hard school year without them. I get that, and it’s cool that you want to find a project to distract yourself, but that project should not be an actual human being. Why don’t you take ceramics or something and mold clay? Instead of, you know, people’s lives.”
I’m dreading the school year without Leilani and Priya, actually. It’s bad enough they both left early for a summer orientation thing at UCLA. We still text all the time, but all the photos they post make college look so fun, and I want to be happy for them, but I can’t help feeling left behind. Plus, with Sarah getting married and starting this whole new life, things feel like they’re changing so fast. At least Blake is still the same. Sometimes I’m relieved he’s a college drop out.
At least, most times. Not now, when he’s being so dramatic. “Why are you changing this into something bad? I’m doing a good thing for Elton—I’m like a fairy sprinkling happiness dust on him.”
Blake makes a grab for the remote, but I keep it out of his reach. “Emily, seriously. Elton’s 17, and he wants to pick his own girlfriend.”
“He wants to think he’s picked his own girlfriend. I’ll let him do that.”
“You’re really not going to leave the guy alone, are you?” Blake’s wearing his I’m-older-and-wiser-than-you face, even though, hello, he’s only three years older than me.
“I should get ready for gymnastics,” I say and stand up. Blake and I pretend to fight all the time, but I hate arguing with him for real.
He shrugs in that way that means he’s annoyed that I’m not doing exactly what he says. “Yeah, I gotta get back to the store anyway. See you.”
He slips out the door, and I’m more bothered than I should be at his moodiness. I look back at my phone. Elton asked if I was going to Navik’s party tonight, and I said no. He sent me a sad emoji, and, seriously, if Elton could be an emoji, he’d be that sad face.
I don’t know what Blake’s deal is—because Elton’s a lucky guy. I’m going to change his life.
Thanks for reading! You can find Emily on Amazon.