I’d been looking forward to Fresh by Margot Wood for a while. I saw a short video of Wood talking about it shortly before its publication and it sounded like a book I absolutely could not afford to miss. A modern-day queer retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma? Yes, please. I requested it from the library almost immediately, but the library must have lost it or something because I was number one on the list for nearly four months. After all that, was it worth the wait? Somewhat.
What’s it about?
‘A modern-day queer retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma’ is more or less a decent description. Fresh follows Elliot, a wealthy college freshman. She hasn’t decided on her major yet, and has decided to spend her first semester taking gen-ed classes, finding the perfect boyfriend for her roommate-turned-BFF Lucy, and having an exciting parade of no-strings-attached one-night-stands (at least, when she’s not being firmly reprimanded by her RA, Rose). She makes some major missteps.
How does it compare to Emma?
I adore Emma. Jane Austen is one of my all-time favorites, and Emma is arguably my favorite of her novels (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are eternally battling it out for that coveted top spot). I run-not-walk towards adaptations and updates to Emma because it is such a wonderful story. The new version with Ana Taylor-Joy is stunning, by the way. The 2009 version with Romola Garai is essentially perfect. Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 version has a few bright spots in the supporting cast but is overall a dud. Clueless is, of course, a classic. Emma Approved is tons of fun and alarmingly bingeable. So where does Fresh fall?
Pretty low, unfortunately. It’s a decent enough book, and while it does take some cues from Austen, it doesn’t keep enough of the original to feel like a retelling. It’s more inspired by than based on. And that’s fine. It’s just that for someone who knows and loves Emma so much, I was looking for some elements that Wood simply didn’t include and I was a bit disappointed by their absence. OG Emma is a relentless matchmaker; it’s something she does often and obsessively. Elliot sets Lucy up once, but there is no Miss Taylor equivalent to give her her misplaced matchmaking pride.
Also notably missing? Jane Fairfax. Clueless did an admirable job of working around Jane Fairfax, but for my money she’s an integral part of the story. Emma should have a foil who is all the things that Emma says she is, and her absence undercuts Frank Churchill as well.
It feels simply weird to have an Austen adaptation without the cad. I mean, yes. We have Kenton/Elton, but we’re functionally missing Frank. Frank is, when compared to Wickham or Willoughby, an okay guy but he does still string Emma around and treat her badly. He’s the red-herring love-interest who turns out to be bad news, and that’s a staple of Austen. Fresh’s Frank—aka Nico—has nothing like that. The only way you can tell he’s Frank is because he dates Elliot at the same point in the story when Frank flirts with Emma. There’s nothing wrong with Nico except that he’s bad at sex. He’s not already engaged or using Elliot for social status or any of the things you’d expect from an Austen antagonist. Since I was expecting him to go the route of the original or at least be playing Elliot in some way, particularly considering that Rose—aka Knightley—inexplicably warns Elliot off him several times, but at the end of the day he’s just the wrong guy.
It also bothered me that Rose doesn’t feel much like Knightley. Obviously that character would have to change for the times, but it seems odd that ‘vaguely naggy’ is pretty much the only element of the original character that was kept. Don’t get me wrong: I like Rose fine, but she doesn’t feel a lot like Knightley.
I think the main reason these characters and this novel don’t feel like Emma is because they’re all new. Austen’s Emma has lived amongst the same people her whole life. They’ve known her for years and she is a pillar of society. Knightley has been a close family friend for as long as she can remember, and in fact is closely tied to the Woodhouse family by marriage (his brother to her sister). Frank Churchill himself is a novelty, but Emma has heard stories of him from his father for years. She is extremely well connected. Fresh’s Elliot isn’t. She’s a college freshman, and she meets everyone when she arrives. There are no long relationships here, so even when Fresh does hit the story beats, the vibe is different.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes modernized adaptations go the other direction and hit every single character beat, so much so that you wonder why you aren’t reading the original. There is definitely a place for adaptations like Fresh. My problem going into it was that I expected it to be more like Emma. If you know going in that it’s going to be loosely based on Austen, you’ll like it more. If you’ve only experienced Emma once or twice and aren’t massively familiar with every plot point, you won’t be bothered. If you’re obsessed with Austen and Emma, though, you might end up wishing for more.
What’d I think?
It’s a cute enough book, but it’s not one that I’m especially excited by. Because I read it during November (aka NaNoWriMo), I didn’t get to this review until later, and by the time I sat down to write it, most of the things I remembered specifically about it were negative.
The main thing I remember and disliked is a joke that doesn’t land and then gets repeated over and over and over again like it is is hysterical. You see, when Elliot is sexually/physically attracted to someone she calls it “tender chicken.” This is supposedly funny and charming, because she brings it up at least a dozen times. I cringed at it the first time, but it carries through the whole book and even makes a conspicuous appearance in the EPILOGUE. It’s never a good sign when a writer tries to get that kind of mileage out of a joke that is a groaner at best. Ditto the laundry thing. Elliot and her sister have a weird obsession with laundry detergent. It’s just kind of bizarre, but Wood makes it a major part of Elliot’s personality and ties much of her courtship with Rose to it, which strikes me as an odd choice.
Then there’s Micah. Micah made me feel kind of uncomfortable. He doesn’t have a direct Austen counterpoint, which means that he’s entirely Wood’s creation. He’s also a gay best friend. Not the kind of well-rounded supporting character who is gay; he’s literally the GBF, which is a trope I don’t expect to be played straight in a book with a bisexual woman as its lead. Micah, though. He’s not, like, actively offensive but he plays very little role in the story; he exists just to be stylish, spread gossip, and start shit. Elliot compares him to TMZ when they first meet, but he reminded me more of Perez Hilton at his height. I also sort of feel like he was there to tick some diversity boxes. In their first appearance, Micah is described specifically as being brown and introduces himself with he/they pronouns. Neither of those things ever comes up again, and honestly I wouldn’t even have remembered that Micah used he/they if I hadn’t flipped back to their intro to write this review, because I think Fresh only uses “he/him” for him from then on out.
I suspect Fresh will struggle to find an audience. It’s decidedly a New Adult book—too much sex to be comfortably YA, but too juvenile to be in general fiction—but the problem with New Adult fiction is there simply isn’t a lot of it. Other books that focus on the college experience—Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is the first one that comes to mind, although there are certainly others—somehow feel both more and less mature; the themes are a little sharper but the sex (if any) is less explicit. Elliot is immature. Most YA protagonists are figuring it out, but Elliot initially doesn’t have any real awareness that she’s transitioning to adulthood. She does whatever she wants whenever she wants, simply doing whatever feels good in the moment. While she does some self-reflection and self-improvement towards the end, proportionately she spends more time spiraling out of control than finding her center, and as a result she feels more than a little childlike. I suspect that older readers will be somewhat turned off by some of the younger-sounding slang and immature characters, and the younger ones will find that the focus on sex and college life don’t feel as immediately relatable.
Rose is kind of a dud as a love interest. I love the original Knightley. Reimagining Emma/Knightley as a queer relationship should have won me over easily, but Elliot and Rose never really have much chemistry. Their relationship has too many major moments prompted by laundry detergent, and Rose’s main selling point seems to be that she’s super hot and that she’s a really good RA. She is a really RA. I’ll give her that, but a romantic relationship should probably be based on more than “she helped me pick out my classes.”
All this being said, there were still things about Fresh that I enjoyed. Wood does a good job with Elliot’s privilege. Like the original Emma, Fresh knows how drastically wealth has shaped its protagonist’s life and personality and draws a stark contrast between her and her best friend. Elliot can behave as flippantly as she does because she’s rich enough not to sacrifice for college. She bought her way into a hugely expensive college without thinking twice about it, and is resentful when Lucy—who has to work long hours to keep herself in school despite the extensive loans she may never pay off—doesn’t have enough time for her. It’s a minor storyline, but it’s done really well, particularly in comparison with the breezy, mostly surface-level tone of the rest of the story. It’s also a very easy read. It’s not laugh out loud hysterical, but it’s silly and lighthearted and makes for a quick read.
What’s the verdict?
Waiting so long for Fresh turned it into a minor White Whale for me, so when I finally read it after months of anticipation I was somewhat let down. There’s a blurb from Gayle Forman on the cover that calls it “Fun and funny, sexy and sex positive;” that’s a pretty good description. It’s not significantly more than that, but it is that. It is a reimagining of Emma, but only in the loosest of ways. Still, if you are in the mood for a quick wlw romance and don’t mind a bit of sex and immaturity, this is a fun one to pick up.
If you haven’t read the original Emma yet, please do yourself a favor and do it. Pride and Prejudice is the main Austen work that people rad (deservedly; it’s a wonderful, wonderful novel, so much so that we named our puppy Darcy in its honor) but Emma is equally fantastic but comparatively underrated. It’s hilarious and has a darn good character arc on top of the incredible satire and social commentary Austen is so well known and well regarded for.
If, like me, you want to seek out other adaptations of Emma, there are lots. Of the filmed adaptations, both the 2009 and 2020 versions are excellent: faithful, entertaining, beautifully shot and all the other things that a period drama should be. If you’re looking for an update, Clueless (1995) is a classic in its own right and Emma Approved (2013) is a charming (and Emmy-winning) web series that reimagines Emma as a lifestyle guru/vlogger. It was made by the same people who did the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It’s remarkable that it works so well considering that it consists almost entirely of a few people talking to a camera, but I love it.
Maybe you like the idea of a YA novel taking its inspiration from classic literature, but don’t necessarily need it to be Emma. There are lots of good choices. Here are a few that I’ve read recently: Anna K by Jenny Lee is an undated take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Kathryn Ormsbee’s characters in Tash Hearts Tolstoy adapt the same. Mackenzi Lee’s This Monstrous Thing takes cues from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Patrick Ness has adapted both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in Release and And the Ocean Was Our Sky, respectively. Aiden Thomas wrote Lost in the Never Woods, which is inspired by Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. There are tons of adaptations of Shakespeare out there, of course (especially Romeo and Juliet) and there are countless versions of Pride and Prejudice, although none that I personally think do justice to the original.
If you weren’t here for the literary inspiration and just like the college/new adult vibe, give Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell a shot. Cath is a very different character than Elliot, but there are still similarities to their stories: figuring out adult/college life, befriending a roommate, finding romance in unexpected places, etc. It’s one of my favorite books.
Other new adult books set in college? Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact is a cute romance, Alice Oseman’s Loveless has a sweet roommate friendship, and Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay tackles more serious issues like grief and depression still in the college context.