When I heard that Jillian Cantor's The Code for Love and Heartbreak was a Jane Austen retelling, I was all in. A STEM-nerdy Emma where the heroine likes numbers more than people? Sign me up!
I was not prepared for just how much of the original story this book would incorporate, right down to the names. But if you are a super-Austenite who spends the entirety of this story comparing and contrasting it to the original, you will be doing both yourself and this novel a disservice. I struggled with this myself in the first chapter, but once I managed to separate Austen's Emma from Cantor's cast of characters in my head, the story unfolded more smoothly and wonderfully.
High school senior Emma Woodhouse is our protagonist, though she's most often referred to as "Em." She belongs to a coding club at Highbury High in New Jersey that is populated by the very familiar Hannah Smith, Jane Fairfax, Franklin "Sam" Churchill, and Robert Martin. Ms. Taylor, the club's faculty advisor, has a crush on Mr. Weston, the calculus teacher. Mrs. Bates lives in a community where Emma does service hours playing piano for residents. And there's a handsome, kind, and patient George Knightly — as there must be — whose older brother is in a relationship with Emma's older sister.
Emma and George are co-captains of the coding club, and competing for the spot of class valedictorian. While the two characters are quite evenly matched, they are not rivals. Because of their siblings' long-term relationship, they're more like close friends who know each other all too well.
When Emma's sister leaves for college in California at the beginning of the book, she jokingly suggests that Emma code herself a boyfriend. Not only would he enrich Emma's lackluster social life, but he would also distract her from missing her sister. Emma takes this idea to heart, however, and decides she wants to create a matchmaking algorithm for the coding club's state competition project. Because it can't be Emma without some meddlesome matchmaking!
There is some resistance at first, but when Emma's test matches turn out to be winners (Ms. Taylor and Mr. Weston, plus a few others), the club votes to go full speed ahead on the project. Coding for the app and data entry begins. Phillip Elton tries to throw a wrench in the works, but that backfies and ends up fueling participant motivation. Magically, an incredibly large percentage of the school signs up to participate in the Code for Love project. They get matched, and they all get dates to the dance.
Now, there's a bit of suspended disbelief that has to go into this story to make it work — my high school was six times the size of Highbury High, only a small percentage ever attended school dances, and the one Valentine's Day they presented us with their version of a match-thing, nobody really cared. But that didn't stop The Code for Love and Heartbreak from being a lovely tale that brought me back several times to those halcyon (or not) high school days of yore.
My favorite part, I think, is Cantor's treatment of Hannah Smith. In this version, Hannah is prettier, bolder, and leagues more intelligent than her Austen counterpart — a very good thing, as this Robert Martin is gay and gets matched up with someone else fairly early on. As a reader, I took comfort in Hannah's blossoming friendship with Emma. And when the Code for Love algorithm matched Hannah with George Knightly, I found myself torn. The original Emma is a selfish and unlikeable character who does some pretty heinous things. Happily, Cantor's Emma is more sympathetic, and her treatment of how this all plays out resolves itself beautifully. (I admit for half a second I almost wanted Emma to end up with Jane Fairfax — any Emma-Jane shippers out there, feel free to see me after class.)
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any young person with a love of classics or a love of numbers. The Code for Love and Heartbreak asks more than just "is matchmaking meddlesome and wrong?" Considering the ubiquitous dating apps available, we have to wonder...is there an algorithm for love? Can passion be quantified? Could someone, with enough determination, truly code their own boyfriend?
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.