From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Jane Austen is a tough act to follow and that is exactly what the Austen Project asks contemporary authors to do: reimagine one of Austen’s novels in the here and now. Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of four novels including Prep and American Wife, was chosen to take on Austen’s best-known work, Pride and Prejudice. While P&P-inspired books and films such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride and Prejudice demonstrate that the story and its themes have broad appeal, I wondered how Sittenfeld’s Eligible would handle the main plot points in a modern setting. Many of the issues that Austen’s characters grappled with are barely recognizable if they exist at all in modern daily life.
In Eligible, the tension between the original story and Sittenfeld’s inventions kept me turning pages. Brief, episodic chapters mirror the short attention span of a digital era audience. In contemporary Cincinnati, Mr. Bennet spends as much time as possible alone at his computer, while Mrs. Bennet’s life revolves around country club gossip and planning luncheons for the Women’s League. Jane and Liz have carved out careers in Manhattan: the eldest Miss Bennet teaches yoga while her sister writes features for a magazine. They return to Cincinnati when Mr. Bennet has a heart attack. Their practical assistance and support are needed because their younger sisters while living at home, are little help to their parents. Socially awkward Mary is pursuing her third online master’s degree while Kitty and Lydia, as crass and self-absorbed as ever, are obsessed with working out at the gym and following trendy diets. Sittenfeld’s group portrait of the Bennet clan was one of my favorite parts of Eligible. It’s easy to picture Jane Austen smiling at this:
All five girls had then gone on to private colleges before embarking on what could euphemistically be called non-lucrative careers, though in the case of some sisters, non-lucrative, non-careers was a more precise descriptor. (250)
By titling her retelling Eligible, Sittenfeld hints at a shift of focus. Jane and Elizabeth are near forty, rather than young women in their early twenties. Their biggest problem is not the entailed estate of Longbourn but rather the ticking of their biological clocks. As Liz says to Darcy:
“I personally would never go out with you, but you’re tall, you went to fancy schools, and you’re a doctor. To the general public, which has no idea what a condescending elitist you are, you’re a catch. You could be married if you wanted, or at least have a girlfriend… Anyway, everyone knows it’s completely different for a woman. You could stand on a corner, announce you want a wife, and be engaged fifteen minutes later. I have to convince people to overlook my rapidly approaching expiration date.” (3047)
Much of the plot revolves around “Eligible,” a reality TV show reminiscent of “The Bachelor.” Bingley’s notoriety is due to his recent appearance on the show, where he failed to find a “soul connection” with either of the finalists. Jane Austen’s universal truth that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” has been transformed into the fact that “everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife” because they had tuned in to his nationally televised search.
Readers should be aware that Pride and Prejudice characters inhabiting the modern world of Eligible do not wait for marriage before enjoying conjugal bliss. While there are no graphic scenes, the romantic ups and downs encompass much greater physical intimacy than the scandalous waltz occasioned in Austen’s time. This aspect and the casual vulgarity of several characters may put some readers off. More troubling to me was Liz’s resignation at the beginning of the story: settling for a one-sided relationship with a married man after years of lackluster dating experiences. That particular choice does not strike me as true to Elizabeth Bennet, in this century or any other.
The banter between Liz and Darcy is snappy and charged with the underlying attraction they feel for each other. Liz is less restrained in her manner of speech; her tone often takes on biting sarcasm rather than light teasing. This renders Darcy instantly more likable, at Liz’s expense. After she extolls the virtues of her hometown in a speech colored with self-righteous anger that is designed to provoke his supposed pride of superiority, Darcy simply says to her:
“You’re lucky to be so enthusiastic about the place you live.”
“Oh, I don’t live here,” Liz said, “I live in New York.”
At this, Darcy did something she hadn’t previously seen: He smiled. (1192)
When she takes on Caroline Bingley, the conversations become openly hostile. Given Liz’s more assertive style, I wondered whether her confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh would come to blows, but Sittenfeld neatly sidesteps this. In fact, Kathy de Bourgh is one of the biggest surprises of the novel and while I missed the battle between Elizabeth and the Dragon, I understand why Sittenfeld altered Lady Catherine’s character and role. Inevitably, some P&P characters and situations won’t work in a contemporary story. But apart from Kathy de Bourgh, the players are true to the original spirit of the work, if not exact copies in every detail.
Within the limitations of the Austen Project, Eligible delivers engaging characters and witty dialog, along with the pleasure of comparing favorite original scenes with new ones. Sittenfeld sketches the action lightly but with confidence, demonstrating talented storytelling with few signs of the awkwardness found in some retellings. The author of Eligible knows that where Elizabeth and Darcy are concerned, sparks will fly and then all will seem lost for a time. But ultimately our lovers’ character flaws will be corrected or at least softened, and love will triumph.
4 out of 5 Stars
Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House (2016)
Hardcover, eBook & Audiobook (512) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Random House ©2016; text Tracy Hickman © 2016, Austenprose.com