Book Review

Review: Polite Society by Mahesh Rao

Have you ever read a book that you wished was written completely differently? There were so many times in Polite Society when I wished that the story went in a different direction, rather than being confined to the plot of Jane Austen’s Emma. And it was those moments of originality that made this an enjoyable read, whereas the rest made it feel more empty and stifled.

Title: Polite Society

Author: Mahesh Rao

Pages: 368

Publication Date: 20th August 2019

Publisher: Tinder Press

Beautiful, clever, and very slightly bored, Ania Khurana has Delhi wrapped around her finger. When Ania finds love for her spinster aunt, she realizes her potential as a force for good.

For her next match, Ania sets her sights on Dimple: her newest, sweetest, and, sure, poorest friend. But her good intentions may be misdirected, and when her aunt’s handsome new nephew arrives from America, the social tides in Delhi begin to shift. Surrounded by money old and new, navigating gossip, scheming, and an unforgettable cast of journalists, socialites, gurus, and heirs, Ania discovers that when you aim to please the human heart, things seldom go as planned.

Using Jane Austen’s Emma as a springboard, Polite Society takes us into the lives of a group of characters we never want to part with. Pairing stiletto-sharp observation and social comedy with moments of true tenderness, this delicious romp through the mansions of India’s elite celebrates that there’s no one route to perfect happiness.

Basically, this novel is Emma, against a backdrop of old money India. And that should have made it a better experience than it actually was for me.

Now, part of the problem (I’m sure) is that I know Emma – I remember reading it in an English Lit class when I was 14, and watching the movie adaptation (with Gwyneth Paltrow – it’s great), and the TV mini-series, and I haven’t even mentioned Clueless yet … I know the story, and I know it well.

Unfortunately that means that, when reading Polite Society, I was constantly on the look-out for the next connection to the Jane Austen original, when in actual fact I wanted to enjoy Rao’s original story instead.

The novel has a whole host of characters, from self-centred Ania, to her equally self-centred father Dileep, naive Dimple, academic Dev, media host Fahim, and mature socialites Serena and Nina. And the Austen connection meant that I was constantly trying to match these up with characters from the original novel.

In addition, I found none of the characters (except perhaps Dev), particularly redeeming – they were shallow in their approach to society, and shallow on paper too. There were just too many characters, with POVs that veered mid-paragraph, to feel any meaningful connection to any of them – so I was neither jeering or cheering when they were pulled down a peg or two.

Perhaps this was why none of the characters truly seemed to reach that unobtainable happy ending – in fact, the author seemed to betray all of the characters right at the end – hinting that all would not be well in the future.

The best moments came when the story veered from the Emma plot. I loved reading about Ania’s time at the author’s retreat, of each character’s comeuppance and wished that, instead of being constrainted by that old story, Rao had been able to develop his own. There were glimmers of this, before it snapped back to Emma.

Sadly, this missed the mark for me – 3 stars

I received an e-ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What do you think about retellings? Is a new setting sometimes enough to make it work?

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