A while back we had bemoaned the trend of rehashing popular classics. We now know that this form of writing is called fan fiction and that, a lot of it is being encouraged by publishers in order to make more money out of original’s popularity. Despite considerable reservations with what has so far come out of the Austen Project with both Emma (by Alexander McCall Smith) and Sense and Sensibility (by Joanna Trollop) causing us to tear out our hair in anguish, the allure of P&P is such that we couldn’t resist putting our names down for Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld in the library. It was a long waiting list. So yes, the publishers did get it right, Pride and Prejudice by any name and in any form sells. Our expectations, coloured by Ursula K Le Guin’s scathing review in the Guardian, couldn’t possibly have been lower. But upon reading, we actually found it wasn’t horribly burlesque. Although, we did find it a little too ‘modern’ in parts- at least for us- so we can somewhat understand why Ursula K Le Guin was horrified.
Spoilers Ahead! (as much as one can spoil a story which has been around for two hundred years)
Unlike the other books in the Austen Project, Curtis Sittenfeld has not merely recreated the same story in a modern setting, with cars, electricity and plumbing. She has instead taken the sort of liberties required to fit a 19th Century story in to a 21st Century setting. Obviously everyone needed to have jobs and marriage couldn’t be the overwhelming concern of the women. As a result the book does come across as a modern tale and the characters as people with today’s sensibilities. Certainly a lot of the modern world clichés abound – everyone is worried about fitness, they either gym or jog or do CrossFit, or yoga (LL: I feel tired just listing this out). They are conscious about their food. Reality TV plays a big role in the story and to us it seems like the only unreal part but perhaps unreality is the true provenance of reality TV. There are online shopping addictions, sperm donor babies, issues of racism and gender acceptance and there is ‘hate sex’ – whatever that is, thrown into all the other stuff happening. It’s all very strange but seems to work on some level.
In general Curtis Sittenfeld has been kind to most of the characters including someone like Katherine DeBurg who is a nasty piece of work in the original book but in Eligible the little we see of her is likeable. There is nothing much that can be said about a story which is so well known; instead we decided to discuss the differences in characterization. If the book can be broken down into just the characters, our overall impression of each of them follows:
Elizabeth Bennet (Liz) – We came away with the sense that she was more Jane Austen than Elizabeth Bennet considering that she is a writer, independent, witty and at times has an acerbic tongue. She is also observant and has a tendency to ridicule the foolishness of others which is what Jane Austen did in her books. She is also very staunchly, a family person, taking care of even those whom she does not pretend to like. All of these things are reflective of what we know of Jane Austen. But then there is another side to Liz which is hard to understand considering how sharply she sees people. She is made out to be a much bigger fool over Wickham (John Wick) and for a longer period of time than Elizabeth Bennet in the original book.
Mr.Darcy (Darcy) – His character is pretty much the same other than the fact that he is a neurosurgeon. Curtis Sittenfeld couldn’t really meddle with a character that has been the ideal for any number of women over generations. Where would be the point of a Pride and Prejudice with a different Darcy? If anything, he is possibly a nicer person in Eligible and the only one who really has any objection to him is Liz.
Mr. Bingley (Chip Bingley) – We have decided to refer to him as Bimbo Bingley. Really what did Curtis Sittenfeld have against Bingley that she was so harsh with him? She couldn’t possibly have made him more air headed or capricious.
Jane Bennet (We are calling her vague Jane) – She was always a goody two shoes and could never see wrong in anyone but is yoga the modern explanation for that? The original Jane who came across as sweet and naïve just becomes a rather fuzzy personality in Eligible.
Mr. Bennet (Fred Bennet) – Definitely has the best lines in the book. When a nurse in the orthopedist’s office who has never met him, calls him Fred and asks him how he is, Mr Bennet replies “ Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”
Mrs. Bennet ( Mrs. Bennet) – Her’s is the only character who remains very much the same, shopping addictions and racism notwithstanding. Though it is not difficult to imagine that if faced with certain circumstances, Mrs. Bennet may have had similar prejudices even in P&P. We have concluded that mothers, even foolish ones, and their idiosyncrasies, are timeless.
Lydia and Kitty – Both girls are surprisingly likeable, even with their CrossFit addiction, constant bickering, self-centeredness and gossiping.
Mary – remains Mary. Scholarly, subdued and critical of her family.
Charlotte Lucas – Liz’s friend is still making the same mistakes, despite being a career woman and having an impressive job.
Mr. Collins (Cousin Willy) – Translated well into a Silicon valley millionaire and tech geek who is full of himself.
George Wickham (Jasper Wick) – Selfish, racist and, if possible, more self serving.
There are two instances in the book that stand out in our mind – It rankles those who have read Pride and Prejudice that Elizabeth after overhearing Darcy’s disparaging comments about the women in her town and herself in particular only ridicules the comments to others. Curtis Sittenfeld has righted that wrong and allowed Liz to immediately confront Darcy and give full vent to her sarcasm. The second instance is Darcy’s declaration of love to Liz, when he enumerates all his worries about the relationship. Since the unsuitability of her family connections would not be considered relevant today, he limits his reservations to Liz’s personality and explains the irrationality of his feelings in medical terms by saying “It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex.”
All in all, the book was pacy and kept us interested. Perhaps it read too much like chick lit but then it has often been the criticism of Austen detractors that she wrote 19th Century chick lit. But at least it kept us entertained and though we did not love it, we can’t say that we hated it either.