18 April 2016

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld (The Austen Project)

Summary from Goodreads:
From the “wickedly entertaining” (USA Today) Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Prep and American Wife, comes a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A bold literary experiment, Eligible is a brilliant, playful, and delicious saga for the twenty-first century.

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible both honors and updates Austen’s beloved tale. Tackling gender, class, courtship, and family, Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

I had been having trouble with The Austen Project - current bestselling authors retelling/modernizing Jane Austen's novels.  I started with high hopes for Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (reviewed briefly on Goodreads) and really got the "mehs" with Sense & Sensibility by Johanna Trollope (review).  I didn't even try Emma by Alexander McCall Smith.  They all seemed too pat, too tightly bound to their originals.  So what made me change my mind and read Curtis Sittenfield's retelling of Pride and Prejudice (which is my favorite novel)?

She changed the title.  To Eligible.  Just that one change made me hope that she would allow her characters to function in a twenty-first century setting rather than cram them into a nineteenth-century plot.

And this worked.  Eligible was my first read of 2016 and I enjoyed it immensely.  Sittenfeld chose to make Jane and Lizzy professional women in their late thirties - Jane is a yoga instructor, making the choice to have a baby as a single woman, and Liz is a successful journalist with a long-term (read: dead-end) affair with one Wickham (who won't leave his wife, for various and sundry weaselly reasons).  When Mr. Bennet has a heart attack, the two come home for a long visit and find that Mrs. Bennet is a border-line hoarder and compulsive shopper, the family income is dwindling, the house is falling apart, and their three younger sisters are freeloading (all of whom have college degrees).  So while the two lone responsible adults try to get the house repaired, their siblings gainfully employed, and keep their parents in good health they are trotted out to meet the two new doctors in town.  Enter, ER doctor Chip Bingley (recently the weepy bachelor on a shrill reality dating TV show called "Eligible" who failed to find a mate) and haughty-as-can-be neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, who makes the mistake of slagging off Liz's hometown of Cincinnati.

This is genius.  Sittenfeld primed her characters with the traits and skeleton plot of Austen's Pride and Prejudice and then just let them go to find a way to a happy ending.  If a plot element from the original Regency era no longer fits in the twenty-first century, it's either changed or avoided.  For instance, the "ruination" of a young woman if she elopes.  It wouldn't have worked in this setting.  So Sittenfeld did something different for that point in the plot.  She even jettisons a prominent character from the original when he has outlived his usefulness.  The only bit that felt clunky was an Epilogue, that changes point-of-view to a different character to explain a few things. It was unnecessary.  We could have done without, leaving that character more mysterious, or maybe had that character talk to Liz (who provides most of the perspective throughout the novel, there are no other obvious shifts to another character's limited perspective).

I really enjoyed how Sittenfeld stepped out and did a real modernization of Pride and Prejudice. Twenty-first century people swear, over-expose themselves, and have sex.  So do these characters, including hate sex (I loved how that came about because it was so unexpected).  They are racists and bigots and utter garbage fires on occasion.  I loved how this version of Lizzy screws up, makes assumptions and mistakes that are really uncomfortable to read, and then apologizes and tries to do better.  The transition of Mr. Bingley from rich young man with an income to celebrity who failed to find a wife on national (international?) television was a great way to shift the setting from England's landed gentry to middle-class Americans (Mrs. Bennet only thinks she's upper class).  It's different and refreshing in the way that Bridget Jones's Diary and The Lizzy Bennet Diaries are refreshing while still telling the same story.

Eligible will be out tomorrow, April 19, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a DRC of this novel via Edelweiss.

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