- Hardcover: 312 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Random House India (21 August 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780670091003
- ISBN-13: 978-0670091003
- ASIN: 0670091006
- Package Dimensions: 22.5 x 14.5 x 3.5 cm
- Customer Reviews: 25 customer ratings
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Polite Society Hardcover – 21 August 2018
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'A fine and funny novel . . . Rao has a great eye for absurd detail and a sensitive ear for what's not said. Polite Society is anything but polite' -- Mohammed Hanif
'Imagine Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, only funnier (and more terrifying thanks to all the Delhi socialites)' -- Fatima Bhutto
'Here is an utterly gripping, beautifully narrated and refreshingly inventive tale about India. Polite Society is not just a luminous work of art, it's a masterwork that tells you why Rao is such an important raconteur of our time' -- Anees Salim
'An unputdownable jewel of a novel by a writer of astonishing talent' -- Sonia Faleiro
'Rao's writing sneaks up on you. It's quiet, funny, warm. This book is about societal mores and power but it is also about angst and the unsaid' -- Deepak Unnikrishnan
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So, we know “Polite Society” is modelled after Emma by Austen. Austen brings it out in us – as writers and readers to take the imaginary baton and pass it on, keep passing it on, and more so till something can be done with it. When something isn’t Aisha (thank God for that) or even Bride and Prejudice (thank Heavens, I left in the interval), and something then becomes a Bridget Jones’ Diary (the sequel was a disaster) or even Polite Society (the right turn on the 75th page or so).
“Polite Society” is an out and out, witty and most certainly a satire that you just cannot put down after a couple of chapters in. Might I also add, that it is dangerous and quite risky to adapt an Austen novel. It isn’t about the time or the characters or even relevance (some works are universal and break through barriers of time, no matter what), it is about the urgency, the speed, the context needs to drive fast in this time and age and not languid as Emma or Mansfield Park is. Rao takes care of that aspect brilliantly.
Set in contemporary Lutyens’ Delhi, we meet Ania Khurana, a native of Prithviraj Road. From the first page, you know that you have bumped into Emma. Miss Taylor is Renu bua, Ania’s unmarried aunt who she eventually sets up with Colonel Rathore. Dimple of course is modelled after Miss Harriet who is Ania’s special project to work on. Mr. Knightley is Dev, a close friend of the Khuranas. And the stage is set, well almost.
We all then know how it proceeds, don’t we? Ania is a 20-something who just is a meddler and thinks she can make matches, after she sets up her aunt with Colonel Rathore. All she wants now is to find a great match for Dimple, which of course she fails at miserably. So, what is different in this book you ask? Isn’t it just like Emma? Well, I revere Austen and everything she ever wrote, including her letters. I think for the major part so does Rao. Actually, throughout the book that is.
Till the third portion of the book when things become darker and oh so yummy! There are a lot of twists and turns which as a reader you will not see coming and which as a reviewer, I just cannot disclose (spoilers and all that, you know). The framework of Emma is intact, and yet Rao has given himself and the characters more than enough room to play and act out on their own. The style of writing also veers right from the very beginning – an almost mocking tone used for Lutyens’ Delhi and what they represent. Unlike Austen, who wrote in the third person, Rao takes the route of making his characters visible – they are transparent to the reader and have the much-needed gravitas.
At the same time in “Polite Society”, Rao’s maturity comes from the auxiliary factors – the sights, the smells, the touch and what Delhi and its people are made of. There is the sense of discomfort present in all characters – it’s as though they are aware of their shortcomings and flaws and yet will never call them out for what they are. There are neat sub-plots, that when mingle as well do not cause confusion or stir up a storm for the reader.
What is also of interest is how Rao’s characters demand empathy and in more than one-way Mahesh Rao gives it to them straight up. Whether it is Dimple’s dilemma at balancing Ania’s decisions and hers at the same time, or Ania’s failed attempts over and over again, there is always empathy. There are no caricaturist Austen-inspired genteel creatures so to say. The world of Lutyens’ Delhi as presented in “Polite Society” is cleverly funny and satirical, though sometimes it might feel a tad bit exaggerated. There is a lot of back and forth in the plot structure and sometimes internalisation, but it is needed to propel the book. All in all, “Polite Society” is a very interesting and dynamic read, which most of the times comes into its own, and away from the shadow of Austen.
Top international reviews
I did have problems with the book. One was the voice. Austen was able to write with such sardonic humor because she always maintained a third person. Rao flips from person to person, entering sympathetically into their thoughts and thereby losing a helicoptering perspective, "Aren't they silly!" And Austen without humor? Argh.
Another problem was that Ania is so fabulously rich. I mean darling. We're talking jet set rich. Which is fine to read about, but nothing like Austen. One of the most delicately beautiful aspects of Emma is how clearly the country hierarchy is set out, with everyone from 'travelers', to the poor, to the upper classes and those shifting from one class to another. There are wealthy people who are losing their wealth through poor management in Polite Society, but it's not quite the same. I can't get a picture of Indian society from Mahesh Rao the way I can from Austen, and it's not quite funny enough to truly be a fun read.
Things to love about this book: Rao captures aspects of Indian society which many people may not be familiar with, which makes this interesting to read in general. His prose is light and engaging which makes this a quick work to read.
Things I wasn't crazy about: the protagonist was difficult to care about. I also didn't particularly care for the Jane Fairfax character who was never at any point given a reason for her reserve. She seemed one-dimensional and negligible.
I liked "Polite Society", but I didn't love it. I would be interested in seeing what Rao does next as he has considerable talent for story writing. I would just hope that his next set of characters are more engaging.
Early on I recognized that Rao had incorporated a tongue in cheek narrative. His characters were oblivious to everything but themselves. Based on Emma, Polite Society is a tale of wealth and status that features numerous characters. Rao certainly captures many of the elements of Emma, there’s Ania and her matchmaking, Dimple who loves one man but has been convinced that he’s beneath her. Dev is Ania’s lifelong friend who appears here and there to act as Ania’s conscience. Throw in Ania’s self-involved father, a token Muslim reporter in the role of Mr. Elton, and Renu, Ania’s older aunt who finds love later in life. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to finish Emma, so I’m not sure if Polite Society is true to the essence of the classic or not. I do know that it was very disappointing.
For the most part, I found Polite Society to be pages of anecdotes that were designed to show readers how awful the characters were. Where I looked for interesting or outrageous characters, I found instead characters that were frequently obnoxious. Many chapters ended on odd notes that were never picked up again and felt terribly unnecessary. I never felt a connection with any of the characters who felt more like caricatures of India’s polite society rather than people with substance. Perhaps the beauty of this book, the biting irony that one reviewer pointed out, is just lost on me. But I find that, no matter what I read I have an expectation of character and relationship growth. That was missing for me in Polite Society.
Thoughts: I've read several Vine novels set in the present based on Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," but this is the first update of "Emma." Overall, I enjoyed the book, found much of the writing to successfully and delicately evoke the setting and atmosphere of upper crust India, as well as the subtle and not-so-subtle machinations used to keep it running as it is (and everyone mostly in their place). It's not Austen, of course, but it's an excellent imitation.
Of course, humor is highly subjective, but what in the world were all the editorial reviewers laughing at? All I can figure is they think pretentiousness and extravagant living are both hilarious. While pretentiousness can be funny, only to a point; past that point, it’s simply a sad psychological problem. Hence, the only individuals I would recommend this novel to are those who are fans of Jane Austen’s "Emma", and those who like to laugh at others, particularly pretentious rich people who live in an extravagant manner. Ironically, laughing at others was one of the favorite pastimes of many of the wealthy individuals in this story.
While many aspects of the original are here, Rao puts his own, darker spin on some of the side characters: both the Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax types have very different storylines than Austen gave them, and Dileep is drawn dangerously into the thrall of a faith healer type called Mr. Nayak. The broad strokes of the story play out more or less as expected, though: Fahim does not fall for Dimple and marries impulsively shortly thereafter, Ania grows closer to her longtime family friend Dev (standing in for Mr. Knightly) even as she develops a flirtation with the Frank substitute, Dimple and Ankit come back to each other eventually. But while Austen wraps things up neatly and happily, it's much more unsettled at the end of Polite Society.
Taking a beloved story and adapting it is a tricky thing to do...too close to the original, and it barely seems worth the effort, but too far away and you risk enraging fans. I think Rao struck a good balance, adding plot twists that gave the story new complexity. I especially liked the addition of perspectives besides that of Ania, which had the effect of giving Dimple, Dileep, and even Fahim so much more richness and interest. I appreciated the generally edgier tone and the way it undercut a story that has a lot of romantic wish fulfillment and froth built into it. The story the book tells is compelling, and I think would work even without having read Emma (though the understanding that the heroine is supposed to be kind of annoying is definitely helpful to come in with).
While I enjoyed a lot of what this book did, it was not entirely successful. Rao's prose lacks the wit and verve that really mark Austen as a master of her craft, and is less charming as a result of the inevitable comparison. And while many of the side stories were a welcome addition, it felt like there were too many to give them all time to really develop. The generally lightweight tone of the book (even in the heavier way Rao rendered it) would be compromised by the addition of too many extra pages, but I think another 50 or so would have given it all a little more room to breathe. Overall, though, I found this book very good and would recommend it both to those who already love Emma and those who haven't experienced it yet!
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.
Never read Emma. But this was mostly fun. A lot of satire, and eventually becoming darker.
Yes, you also get the feeling of being left behind, as right from the start to end, Ania remains mostly where she was, but the rest enter her life and mostly move on. I wonder if that was part of Emma too.
What really works is the very precise language, where people use words like "civilastrice" and not feel out of place. And I was really glad for the print. That's the second novel from this year that I've read, and both have been flawless. Hope this keeps up.
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This drew me in and kept me reading longer into the night than I probably should have, but I enjoyed the story. Character development was very good, but I did find it a little hard to keep some of the minor characters straight in my mind. The story did not stay focused on the main character to the extent that "Emma" does, which made it a little less coherent to me, possibly because my frame of reference is Euro-American, and some parts had cultural references which weren't obvious to me, although I do like to read Indian novels.
All in all, I strongly recommend the book. It's quite entertaining, and I think you'll be glad you did.
The characters are interesting without being engaging. The Emma-analogue, Ania, engages in some matchmaking but it's just not the same. She's mostly into herself. Yes, Emma was, too, but this is much different. Only a few characters, in fact, make even a half-hearted effort to engage our sympathies. Maybe Dimple, the Harriet analogue. Maybe Dev, the Mr. Knightley analogue (just barely an analogue).
The prose is certainly good, and the sense of place is wonderful. The description of all the high society silliness is great, too. The plot? What plot? It's okay, but it's pretty thin.
And the ending --- I won't spoil it here, but let's just say Jane never would have written such an ending. Or such a book.
Three stars for good writing and good sense of place. But that's as far as I'll go.
This isn't a bad book, but it's not a great book either. The humor feels forced when it appears and sometimes even a little mean spirited. I just never felt anything for the lead, Ania, except disdain and aggravation. She is spoiled, entitled and whiny. She grated on my nerves from the first page and I never warmed to her.
I was a bit dismayed that the book simply ends without more of a satisfying conclusion. It just kind of ends.
Still, it's an entertaining read.