‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld gives ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a Fresh and Fun Makeover

‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld gives ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a Fresh and Fun MakeoverEligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
four-half-stars
Series: The Austen Project #4
Published by Random House on April 19th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Synopsis 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.

My review: 

Prior to requesting Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible from Netgalley, I was completely unfamiliar with the Austen Project, in which six prominent modern-day authors have been tasked with giving contemporary makeovers to Jane Austen’s classic novels.  Because I’ve been a Jane Austen fan since I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, I was immediately intrigued by the project and eager to see what kind of modern spin these authors would put on some of my beloved favorites.

I’m happy to report that Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern take on Pride and Prejudice, did not disappoint.  For those who are familiar with the original classic, Eligible preserves its main characters, primary storylines, satirical elements, as well as its overriding themes:   Mrs. Bennet is still obsessed with finding suitable husbands for her five daughters to marry, and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett again steal the spotlight as they verbally spar their way from hate at first sight to eventual true love.

In spite of the many similarities to Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld skillfully infuses Eligible with enough modern elements and unexpected plot twists to keep her story fresh and hilariously entertaining rather than simply a rehash of the original.

Highlights for me:

There were so many things I loved about this book that it’s impossible to name them all. The contemporary spin on the Liz/Darcy storyline is a given, but here are some of my other favorites:

The Americanized setting.  Swapping out the English countryside for the suburban landscape of Cincinnati, Ohio gave the original storyline an instant facelift, as did replacing fancy dress balls and strolls around formal English gardens with barbecues and jogs around the block.  The change in scenery was instantly relatable, and of course, there was the added amusement of learning that our oh-so-dignified Mr. Darcy was a big fan of Cincinnati chili.

The aging  of the Bennet sisters.  Since it would have been somewhat old-fashioned to be worried about twentysomethings and the danger of spinsterhood, Sittenfeld deftly updates both the ages of the Bennet sisters as well as the driving forces behind Mama Bennet’s desire to find them all men.  Eldest daughter Jane is now 40, with Liz not too far behind her at 38, so the relevant issue at hand for them, Jane in particular, is fertility.  If they want to have children, they had better get busy.

For the younger three Bennet sisters, the issue is more just about having them grow up and start fending for themselves.  Here, Sittenfeld has woven into her narrative a powerful, albeit humorous, criticism of millennials, and particularly of what she refers to as the ‘boomerang effect’ when the grown children return home to live with their parents.  Even though all five Bennet sisters are grown women, only two of them, Jane and Liz, have moved out of their parents’ home and secured careers for themselves.  Kitty, Lydia, and Mary have instead chosen to remain living at home and behaving like children.  They do absolutely nothing to help out around the house either through monetary contributions or by helping to care for their father when his health declines.  Instead of needing husbands, what these three girls need is a swift kick in the pants to get them out of their parents’ home and living independently.

Mrs. Bennet as a racist and a shopaholic.  Instead of just having Mrs. Bennet be prejudiced against individuals of lower social and economic standing, Sittenfeld adds a contemporary flair by also making her have issues with those of color and those who consider themselves to be LGBT.  It is comical how quick she is to pass judgment on others when pretty much all she does throughout the novel is sit and watch reality TV while thumbing through catalogs and indulging her out-of-control shopping addiction.  One look at Mrs. Bennet and one can easily see how the three younger daughters have ended up as frivolous as they have.

Mr. Bennet as the master of the one-liner.  Mr. Bennet’s quick wit, usually at the expense of his wife and three younger daughter, is sure to make you chuckle.  Much like his counterpart in the original classic, he gently pokes fun at their frivolity and voices much of what we the readers think about the females living under his roof.

Pride and Prejudice and Reality TV?  I don’t know how Sittenfeld manages to incorporate a reality TV show into the Pride and Prejudice storyline, but she does so brilliantly.  If there’s anything that lends itself to satire and Austen-esque humor, it’s definitely reality TV.

The way Sittenfeld pays homage to certain classic moments from Pride and Prejudice. In the original novel, for example, there is a wonderful scene where Elizabeth finds out Jane is sick and bedridden at the Bingley residence, and because she has no transportation, opts to tramp miles through the mud in order to make sure her sister is okay.  Completely disheveled and covered in mud, she encounters Mr. Darcy as soon as she arrives at the Bingley’s and his opinion of her is quite elevated when he sees her concern for her sister.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld carefully mirrors this scene by having Liz learn that Jane has taken ill and is at the hospital.  Again, Liz has no transportation and this time she opts to throw on her jogging clothes and run the nearly 5 miles to the hospital.  In the updated novel, Darcy is a surgeon and so Liz, sweaty and disheveled,  runs into him as soon as she arrives at the hospital.  And again, he is very much taken by her concern for her sister’s well being.

What I didn’t like:

Lydia and Kitty.   I can’t think of much that I didn’t adore about Eligible, but Lydia and Kitty and their immature and crude humor is probably at the top of the list.  They were downright obnoxious and I had to keep reminding myself that they’re supposed to be portrayed as juvenile and in need of that kick in the pants so it’s to be expected that their humor would be on the level that it is.

Who would I recommend this novel to?

The wonderful thing about ‘Eligible’ is that I think it works whether you’ve read Pride and Prejudice or not because while it is definitely successful in its efforts to update the original classic, Eligible also still stands on its own as a hilariously funny and satirical look at modern life.  Its short chapters and unpredictability make it an effortless read, and although I imagine Eligible will attract its share of haters, as all attempts to update or redo classics seem to do, I think still that anyone with a sense of humor would enjoy this book.  I think even Jane Austen herself would enjoy this one.

 

4.5 stars

 

About the Author:

To learn more about author Curtis Sittenfeld and other works she has written, please visit her official website at http://www.curtissittenfeld.com/ and follow her on twitter at @csittenfeld.

 

four-half-stars
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