I am a person who has what might be called “enthusiasms.” In no particular order they include writing, photography, dogs, tea, Shakespeare, flowers, movies, theater, food, and, in particular, Jane Austen. I am such a fool for Jane Austen that I will see or read anything that is remotely connected with her, even though this often dooms me to despair. In particular, I am thinking of the horrible Austenland, a charmless. unfunny movie about a Jane Austen fan who goes to England to re-enact the world of Jane Austen.
Therefore, when on National Public Radio, I heard of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, I knew I would have to read it. But would it be a flop on the order of Austenland—how could anything be that bad?—or would it be an engaging retelling of Austen’s most buoyant novel? Readers, I am happy to report that it was the latter rather than the former, and while it doesn’t quite live up to Pride and Prejudice, Eligible is, as the saying goes, a good read.
Eligible is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Bennet family—at least most of them—live in debt in a ramshackle Tudor. Mrs. Bennet is a shopaholic, Mr. Bennet hides in his study, and three of the daughters—Kitty, Mary, and Lydia—sponge off their parents. Liz, a magazine writer, and Jane, a yoga instructor, have flown the nest and live in New York City. However, Mr. Bennet’s bypass surgery brings Liz and Jane back to Cincinnati.
Enter “Chip” Bingley, an emergency room doctor and the recent star of the reality-television show Eligible, where “[o]ver the course of eight weeks…twenty-five single women had lived together in a mansion…and vied for Chip’s heart…” And who should Chip’s best friend be? Why none other than the dark, handsome Fitzwilliam Darcy, a neurosurgeon who went to medical school with Chip.
And so the story begins, and, in general, it follows the contours of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy, in true Darcy fashion, manages to be haughty and insulting at a party, where Liz overhears his disparaging remark about her. This, in turn, gives rise to Liz’s prejudice about Mr. Dacry. Cousin Willie Collins winds up with LIz’s best friend Charlotte, while Mr. Bennet is as funny and detached in Eligible as he was in Pride and Prejudice. And Mrs. Bennet and Lydia? Well, let’s just say that Sittenfeld does an effective job of channelling these two ninnies into the twenty-first century.
There are also some major differences, most of which I’m not going to get into as it would spoil the plot. However, I do want touch on a couple of them. Along with the pairing of Jane and Bingley and Liz and Darcy, one of the book’s major concerns is sex and sexuality, and Sittenfeld explores this in a way that is moving and generous and not in the least gratuitous. Toward the end of the novel, Liz reflects “that if a Cincinnatian could reinvent herself as a New Yorker, if a child who kept a diary and liked to read could ultimately declare she was a professional writer, then why was gender not also mutable and elective?” Why, indeed?
But the biggest difference is that for all of the young women in Eligible, not much is at stake if they don’t wind up with the right partner. Charlotte is a smart professional woman who does not need a husband to live a good life. The same is true for Liz, and it’s mostly true for Jane. In short, women today have more options—better options, in my opinion—than they did in Jane Austen’s time, where making a good match was the best thing that could happen to a woman. The extremely limited options available to women in the eighteenth and nineteenth century bring a dark note into Pride and Prejudice, and it makes it a deeper story than Eligible is.
Nevertheless, Eligible is very much worth reading. In the end, I found myself routing for the characters in their own right, as Sittenfeld conceived them rather than as crossovers from Pride and Prejudice.
That, of course, is the mark of a good book.