By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld

eligibleEveryone knows the timeless tale of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice. There’s plucky Liz Bennet, who writes for a socially conscious women’s magazine; her beautiful older sister, Jane, who teaches yoga and is now giving IVF a shot in the hopes of having a child after having hit forty without marrying. Then there’s Mary, who barely leaves her room and is the proud recipient of not one, not two, but three online Master’s degrees! And who could forget Kitty and Lydia with their dopey, mindless devotion to CrossFit and the Paleo diet, along with their inability to look up from their smart phones for more than 30 seconds. Mr. Bennet can of course be found in his study, where he studiously ignores the management of his inherited estate, which has been severely depleted over the years by Mrs. Bennet, who would probably make a great subject for the show, Hoarders.

This doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe it sounds like an absolutely terrible attempt at making the brilliant Pride and Prejudice accessible to a modern readership. Why must authors try all these stupid gimmicks instead of writing their own original novels? There’s absolutely no way to maintain the lovely humor of the original novel in our world with all of its modern technology and independent women, right?

Trust me — this is exactly what I was thinking. I was determined to keep Ms. Austen’s tour de force on its pristine pedestal, where Darcy and Elizabeth (along with their frock coats and empire waistline gowns and fortnights and passionate love letters) could live on undisturbed.

But I hiked up my big girl librarian pants and fell immediately in love with the trials and tribulations of the Bennet family all over again. Curtis Sittenfeld‘s retelling of this classic has lost none of the charm and vivacity that marked Austen’s original creation. Yes, the language has certainly changed, but the witty banter bubbles through the narrative like fizzy champagne. Now Bingley is a former contestant on a Bachelor type reality show that his sister talked him into doing; Darcy is an asocial neurosurgeon; and Lizzy’s a feminist dating a married man.  Yet, if Jane Austen had lived today, I think this is the book she would have written.

What Sittenfeld does so well is to simply let Austen’s characters exist in our world. She’s not trying to shoehorn cutesy reasons for everyone to do the exact same things they do and say in the original — nothing about them has fundamentally changed from their regency counterparts, so she doesn’t need to. The Bennets do and say the things readers would expect them to say. Such an expertly handled retelling also lets readers explore the deep and sometimes crippling love that can exist within a family. We admire Lizzy’s unfailing devotion to her parents and siblings, while we recognize that this very devotion has kept her treading water in her own life. She knows, on some level, that her constant micromanaging of all her family’s issues only enables their poor behavior (she pays Mary and Kitty’s rent and takes on the herculean task of selling the Bennet family home) but she’s also deeply reluctant to stop, because that would mean looking for emotional fulfillment from strangers.

But it’s the deft handling of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship (and by extension Jane and Bingley’s) that really shines here. As the fulcrum on which the original novel turns, any modern retelling will rise or fall on the depiction of this duo. Clearly Elizabeth and Darcy’s tempestuous courtship can’t be based on the outdated circumstances of the original story. But rather than handicap them by just setting Lizzy and Darcy loose in 2016, Sittenfeld makes their loneliness and longing for connection all the more palpable by initially basing their relationship on nothing but physical attraction. It’s not until they begin to recognize in each other a person who views the world through the same sardonic and cynical lens, that the couple begins to develop the potential for closeness and understanding that transcends the physical stuff.  It’s a relationship that’s wonderfully old-fashioned and modern at the same time.

This book was a genuine delight from start to finish.  Sittenfeld has populated Eligible with wonderful characters who get into all the same scrapes and ridiculous situations you loved in its classic counterpart…and who sling witty barbs at each other with a gusto that would have made Ms. Austen very proud.


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