The Emma Project concludes Sonali Dev’s series of contemporary Jane Austen retellings with a gender-flipped version of Emma. In it, Vansh Raje is the jet-setting youngest child of the illustrious Raje family, a famously wealthy and tightknit clan descended from Indian royalty and based in California. Dev’s Mr. Knightley equivalent is formidable entrepreneur Knightlina “Naina” Kohli, a decade-older family friend who’s been a beloved mentor to Vansh for most of his life.
Naina is the mature grump to Vansh’s playful sunshine. As an Indian American woman who’s fought for the well-being of countless others and gone to extremes to secure her own independence (she once faked a long-term relationship to appease her difficult parents), she’s grown to resent the Rajes’ seemingly easy paths through life. Tensions ratchet up between Naina and Vansh when they compete for funding from the same donor, funding Naina desperately needs for her microfinance foundation. Going head-to-head ignites a heady combination of long-standing trust blended with newfound lust.
While Dev expertly grafts the age gap, charming meddler and grumpy-sunshine tropes from Emma onto her sprawling contemporary update, there is a sharp difference in tone. Emma is a true precursor to the modern romantic comedy, but The Emma Project, like most of Dev’s work, is an emotionally heavy story. Naina is not just stern; she’s been hurt by her severe and volatile father, who has wreaked havoc on his family over the years. Dev’s darker take on the character gets especially tricky in Naina’s attitude toward Vansh, which can seem excessively harsh given his sincerity.
Handsome and relentlessly gregarious, Vansh dealt with dyslexia and the sting of comparison to his academically adept older siblings growing up. He’s keenly aware of his own privilege; he “wasn’t hypocritical enough to see his life as anything but charmed.” He also understands that his most obvious assets, apart from his family, are his looks (“Vogue had declared him the most gorgeous of his siblings”) and his easy way with people, and he’s more than made peace with that. Determined to stand out in his own right, Vansh has worked hard to build a substantial philanthropic network by leveraging his strengths. He has earned the implicit trust of his friends and that social capital has meaningful rewards.
Dev endows Vansh with wonderful depth, making him a more substantive Emma, while giving Emma’s petty jealousy to Naina, who is a more severe Knightley. This makes the gender flip of The Emma Project interesting, but it’s dissatisfying to see the female character, especially a female version of a character as beloved as Knightley, get the short end of the stick.
Despite these somewhat disappointing adaptation choices, Vansh and Naina’s story is compelling in its complexity. These are multilayered characters, and the drama is well earned. Plus, The Emma Project‘s many callbacks and cameos from previous books in the series firmly tie the novel into the larger series. It’s intriguing to contemplate how gender impacts this classic age-gap romance, especially when complicated by a contemporary setting and family dynamics.