Review: The Emma Project by Sonali Dev (2021)

The Rajes, #4

Reviews of The Rajes, Book #1, Book #2, and Book #3

Heat Factor: They have a lot of sex, but it’s almost entirely fade to black. 

Character Chemistry: They critique each other out of love.

Plot: They’re working together to make the world a better place, but their families would have a conniption if they dated.

Overall: A nice finish to a solid series.

Let me start by saying that Emma is my favorite Austen. So I was curious and apprehensive to see what Dev would do with this retelling, the final book in her four-part series about the Raje family, an Indian-American family of extreme overachievers. (Dev is opting not to retell Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, which is probably a wise decision.)

Here’s what Dev nails: the dynamic between Vansh (our Emma stand in) and Naina (Knightley) is perfect. Take this description of how Naina makes Vansh feel when they interact:

She had known Vansh his whole life and had the only voice on earth that had this particular impact on him. A potent combination of reprimand and amusement that made Vansh want to wipe his face like a toddler caught eating dirt, while also making him feel like no one else ate dirt quite as impressively as he did. 

I am dying. This is the writing of someone who understood the assignment.

The other part that Dev nails is Vansh’s project. He decides that he’s going to “solve homelessness” in San Francisco. The mix of privilege and desire to do good and cluelessness is spot on. 

But here’s the thing. The real reason I love Emma the best (besides our unlikeable heroine) is because it’s friggin hilarious and so so fun to read. And Dev does not do comedies. While there are certainly funny moments, this book is an angst-fest. So, depending on what you’re looking for in an Emma retelling, this may or may not hit the spot. 

The bigger question: how does it work as a romance? 

Naina is a great character, who gets her much-deserved redemption arc after some…not great actions in Incense and Sensibility. She may come across as cold and self-serving, but really she is too busy making the world a better place to have time for emotions. She also, like Ashna in Recipe for Persuasion, has a terrible father and a fraught relationship with her mother; the shifts in that relationship are integral to Naina’s growth as a character. Also like Ashna, she is carrying a lot of trauma, though she manages it by closing herself off to everything except her work. Naina is messy, but I loved her. 

Vansh is perhaps less developed, but he’s still a perfect foil for Naina. I am tempted to call him a true himbo hero, but he carries a lot of hurt precisely because his family thinks of him as a himbo—they value him for his kindness, and gently mock him for his extreme dedication to grooming, but they don’t appreciate his work ethic or his ideas or his brains. (After all, he’s not a neurosurgeon like his sister or a charismatic politician like his brother.)

So in terms of the romance, the dynamic between Vansh and Naina was lovely. There’s a great mix of gentle (and not so gentle) ribbing and each one genuinely seeing the other for the strengths that no one else appreciates. Vansh sees Naina’s emotional vulnerability, when everyone else sees a cold bitch; Naina sees Vansh’s smarts and dedication to bettering the world, when everyone else sees a flighty young man.

The pacing, however, felt a little off. There’s a lot of detail about the solving homelessness app they develop together and the funding for Naina’s work building clinics in Nepal. Some is necessary set-up to get the two of them in a forced-proximity work situation, but we could have spent way less time with Jiggy to get to the same point. Part of this is the nature of the retelling, and hitting certain “beats” of the story to make it recognizably Emma—Vansh’s protégé being humiliated is a big one here—sometimes meant that development of the plot took a backseat.

Three other sidenotes that might be of interest to readers:

  • There’s some magic stuff going on with Esha (the eldest Raje of this generation). Maybe. Regardless, I’m glad she got her own happy ending.
  • I do not recommend reading this as a standalone romance. At the very least, read Incense and Sensibility for some background on why Vansh’s family is being so stinking mean to Naina all the time. (But really, I recommend the whole series. As long as you like angst.)
  • This book has ALL THE TROPES. Want forbidden romance? We’ve got that. Friends to lovers? That too. Workplace forced proximity? Check. Older woman? Double check. I swear this is just sex and will never be a real relationship? Oh yeah. Grumpy sunshine, with a true sunshine male lead? Check, check, check!

While I struggled a little with things dragging in the middle, the relationship between Vansh and Naina made up for it. 

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

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