"Emma" started off a bit slow, but once it got going, I found it quite a page-turner. Emma, even though she is still very young, is basically the head of her household, as her father is a fretful, ineffectual man who allows others to "handle" him easily. Fortunately, Emma is basically a good-hearted young woman who makes (mostly) good decisions, and (usually) behaves properly, and always with great consideration for her father. At the outset of the book, we learn that she thinks herself an excellent matchmaker and decides that she is going to help her newly cultivated friend, Harriet, find the perfect husband. Emma herself, however, intends never to marry and ruin what seems to her an already perfect life. Throughout the book, she pokes her nose into situations that would perhaps better be left alone, and behaves in ways which are destined to be misinterpreted by others (although she's unaware of this at the time). All this, of course, leads to what are supposed to be some interesting twists and turns in the plot.
***The rest of this review contains MAJOR SPOILERS including what happens at the end of the book***
Austen's books are always a look into a world that is different from my own, and yet some things never change. She drew many wonderful characters in this book, although I did find a few of them to be off-puttingly obnoxious. Not more obnoxious, perhaps, than characters in some of her other books, but they seemed to have a lot more page-time (and dialogue in particular) than I remember being the case in other books. Of course, Mrs. Elton was utterly loathesome, and in need of a major smackdown. I also quickly tired of Mr. Woodhouse. Sweet man though he was said to be, his constant worrying was very tiresome, and I could have done without quite so much of it. While these characters annoyed me, it wasn't because they were unbelievable; on the contrary, I've known people like both of them. I just don't have as much patience with either sort as Emma did.
I found that with this book, also perhaps more than in others by Austen, I had to consciously "turn off" some of my modern sensibility while reading. Class and wealth and everyone knowing their proper place (and staying in it) is always a theme, and one that was relevant to the time and place in which these books were written, but somehow in this book I found it more oppressive than usual. Emma and those around her are very concerned with maintaining the status-quo in regards to their relationships, and in the course of the story, Austen plays with this quite a bit. As Emma wonders just how much her friend Harriet's low birth might be outweighed by her wonderful personal qualities, we're led to wonder as well, which sets up most of the tension for the whole story. It turns out, though, that "playing" with this is all Austen does; she proves herself to be conservative, and none of her characters rock the boat by marrying outside of their class.
I will say, in relation to the above comments, that one of the things that puzzled me about this book was that it's considered a masterpiece of narrative misdirection, and is said to end with a monumental twist. Narrative misdirection, perhaps, but it was one that never really sucked me in. It was obvious Emma was convincing herself of things that were not true. Mr. Elton was clearly was courting Emma, not Harriet, and for Emma to be blind to that made me stop trusting her judgement, so later in the story I didn't buy into any misdirection. As for the ending, there were no surprises there - it ended exactly the way I'd expected it to end. (From the very first time we see his name, I knew she'd end up with Knightley, and all the other pieces were equally easy to fit into the puzzle). Perhaps because I'd heard there was a twist at the end, and read it with a mind to figure out what it could be, I was more careful in my reading than I might have been otherwise and I did figure it out, where others might not have. But, assuming that the book would have a happy ending for Emma (which I was certain it would), there was really no other way for everything to work itself out in the end, so I'm not sure just what the big "twist" is supposed to be. (Although, for a short time, I thought perhaps Frank Churchill was just wacky enough that he was interested in Miss Bates). I thought the book was fun, and I enjoyed following Emma's train of thought, but early on I stopped seeing things solely from her point of view, so I wasn't surprised by anything at all. (If I'd thought that the book might end unhappily for Emma, I might have suspected that Knightley would have set his sights on Harriet. It was clear, though, that Austen liked Emma far too much to leave her loveless at the end of the book). So, a great book, but one of the biggest surprise endings in literature? No, I don't think so.
I can't decide if this is now my favorite Austen, or if P&P still holds that honor. I did enjoy Emma and Knightley at least as much as Elizabeth and Darcy; perhaps more, since they were always genuinely friendly to one another, even when they disagreed. But in the end, I will say that I still like Elizabeth Bennett better than Emma Woodhouse. Emma is lovely, but her ill-conceived manipulations were heavy-handed at times. (Even though, of course, there wouldn't have been a story without them).