Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

EligibleI 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.Β  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.Β  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.

 

 

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22 thoughts on “Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice”

      1. Will do! They have 6 copies so it shouldn’t take too long to get to me! πŸ™‚

  1. I have it on hold too…244 people ahead of me. Well i have to read before september for my (of course )Cincinnati based bookclub. I am heartened by your report, because I love my friend Jane so much that I am always cautious she might not do her justice!

    1. Let me know what you think of the book, when you finally get to read it πŸ˜‰ Sittenfeld doesn’t compare with Jane, but “Eligible” is pretty good nonetheless.

  2. Thanks for the review. It raises an interesting question: how would Austen write about her characters if they lived in today’s social environment? She herself might be a very different sort of author.

    1. Jason, I have been thinking about that very thing. Yes, most likely Austen would be a different writer if born today, but if class and poverty were still her issues, then perhaps a bright but poor young high school student who yearns to go to college but can’t because of her family situation? Anyway…interesting to think about.

  3. First, “enthusiasms” is a lovely way to describe the interests that call to us. As a fellow Jane Austen lover, I will, of course, check this book out. Although no one has ever come close to matching Jane herself. And, I agree that because the heart of her writing is founded on the stark truth of women’s economic powerlessness, it’s to translate her books to modern times.
    Which Austen book is your favorite? I’m a sucker for Persuasion. Also, have you seen “Love and Friendship” yet?

    1. Yes, yes! Although we still do have class issues and economic issues, to put it mildly. I think the subject would have to be approached from another angle. Interesting to think about. I did see “Love and Friendship.” I probably should have written a review of it. I thought it was so-so, and while I saw it at Railroad Square Cinema, it’s certainly something that could be seen on DVD or on some kind of streaming service.

  4. At the Rotterdam Film Festival I saw the movie ‘Love & Friendship’ )https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_%26_Friendship) based on the epistolary novel ‘Lady Susan’. I had never heard of this novel, but read it before seeing the film. I loved both! Have you read this one?

    1. I’ve seen the movie and thought it was so-so. I’ve never read the book. I will at some point because I think Jane Austen was a genius, and even though “Lady Susan” is an early, unpublished work, I am still interested in it. If you have a chance, tell me what you liked about it.

      1. If you like epistolary novels, it is a good read. In the beginning I had to get used to the characters, thought that I misunderstood parts of the prose, as they are different from the ones she later on used to describe. Looking back that actually was the charm of ‘Lady Susan’, not perfectly goody-goody characters. Jane Austen did not finish it, by the way, so it has a different ending from the movie. Maybe you will like the book better than the movie, because the prose is already Austenish.

      2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response! Really makes me want to read the book. Although don’t you think Emma is a flawed character, too?

      3. Yes, I think she is a bit weak. Last week I downloaded ‘Northanger Abbey’ from Gutenberg to read on my e-reader. That one was still missing on my reading list. Hope to read it in the next few weeks.

      4. I really liked “Northanger Abbey.” Very different from her other books, but a very good take-off on the Gothic novel. Plus, it examines evil in everyday life. That’s a lot for one book, don’t you think? Again, if you have time, let me know what you think about it.

      5. OK, I’ll do that. First I want to finish ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan (quite a different affair). After that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (have to reread it) for my English book club. When you like to read (and take photos), you are never bored. πŸ˜‰

      6. Marga, you got that right! I’m going to look up “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Happy reading!

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