“You could always code yourself a boyfriend.”
I love retellings and in the past I’ve read a wide variety of them. Usually, when Jane Austen’s name comes up, you’re looking at a Pride and Prejudice retelling. In the case of Jillian Cantor’s The Code for Love and Heartbreak is a modern look at Austen’s Emma, the story in which a young matchmaker gets herself in way over her head and proves, in the end, that she really doesn’t know all that much about how love works anyway. If you know how Emma goes, you can basically guess pretty much everything about Cantor’s novel.
A Hot Take
Okay, so Emma Woodhouse is a socially awkward programmer who has sort of used her elder sister as a safe base over the years. Now, with Izzy going away to college, Emma will have to navigate Senior year of high school on her own. When the idea to use her love of numbers–after all, numbers make sense and people don’t–to calculate one’s statistically perfect match, Emma sees it as the perfect project for her coding club. But as with any high school rom-com, some drama is about to unfold.
Now, as a fan of the 1995 Emma retelling Clueless, I was pretty excited for an even more modernized version of the story. And, by all accounts, Cantor gives us exactly what we’d expect from a novel like this. Yet, I found myself thoroughly disappointed in it all. In a way, I think it really came down to chemistry. As I said before, if you know Emma you pretty much know this story. And from what I can tell, this really hurt the book as a whole.
Yeah, they’re basically all here. With the exception of a few odd name changes, everyone is set up to be who they are right off the bat. And, with the exception of Hannah (Harriet) and Robert, most of the stories end the same way. I found it incredibly odd that Cantor disliked the name Frank so much that she kept it but had the character go by the nickname “Sam.” Regardless, the characters all match up and so do their arcs.
The problem with this, though, is that none of the characters really have the chemistry they are meant to. It’s possible that this is an issue with the writing itself, but it’s also partially due to the fact that we spend the majority of our time inside Emma’s head and she doesn’t see anything going on. Thus, as readers, we are cast out from being able to experience all these important moments with the other characters.
The Couple That Should Have Been
Honestly, I don’t really buy most of the pairings that Cantor gives us. For one, there’s a serious lack of connection shown between almost all of them. And the connections that we are shown point to an entirely different relationship. This would have been fine, I think, had I felt this way about the minor characters’ relationships. I don’t really expect to understand on an intimate level how those characters grow to care for each other.
But when it’s the main character and her love interest that feels the most unbelievable? That’s a problem.
I didn’t care about Robert’s relationship, or Harriet’s, or any of the other side characters. I didn’t even care about Sam. And where I think Cantor went horribly wrong with her novel is that Emma and Jane had more chemistry than literally anyone else in the entire book. They spent the most time together, had the best conversations, and just really clicked. Emma’s actual love interest hardly got any significant face time in comparison. And the book hurts for this.
So, not only did Cantor miss a brilliant opportunity for a well-written Sapphic novel, but her main pairing was just incredibly lackluster as a result. In my opinion, Emma should have ended up with Jane. The story would have been infinitely better for it.
Speaking of Emma
Am I the only one who thinks Emma was absolutely awful for a good portion of the novel? I found her rather difficult to connect with largely due to the fact that she regularly let her anger get the better of her. On more occasions than was necessary, Emma often assumed how others around her were feeling, despite regularly admitting to not understanding people in general. She would get so stuck in her own paranoid thoughts and sabotage a plethora of opportunities.
There were so many instances in which Emma was just irritating.
I leave this book feeling as though Cantor really struggled to include any real depth in her novel. Everything is kind of glossed over and rushed through. Emma never really grows, important connections aren’t properly built, and serious topics are often brushed off. The entire story felt shallow, missing moments for insightful growth. I just feel very underwhelmed by the book as a whole.
I won’t say that it’s terrible because it’s not. But this book is very surface level in terms of development and insight. If you’re looking for that, you won’t find it here. At the end of the day, this is literally just a lackluster retelling of Emma.
I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.