I grew up in Cincinnati, as did author Curtis Sittenfeld. In fact, the Sittenfelds lived next door to us on Menlo Avenue when I was a teenager, and I babysat Curtis and her older sister when they were quite small. They were only there for a few years and Curtis was young enough that she probably wouldn’t remember me, but I have followed her career from afar over the past decade and have always been thrilled and impressed that a fellow Cincinnatian has become a successful and esteemed writer. Curtis’ latest work, Eligible, is part of the Austen Project, wherein modern authors update six of Austen’s classics as we approach the 200th anniversary of her death. Pride and Prejudice is, hands down, my favorite novel of all time. I first read it in high school, and it is the only book I have ever, upon finishing, immediately started to read again. For many years, I reread P&P every Christmas as a gift to myself. I have largely avoided Austen fan fic that tries to imagine “what happened next” for the Darcys, Bingleys and Bennets, and I might have passed by a modernization of P&P if it hadn’t been written by Curtis Sittenfeld. P&P is a classic, so beloved by fans like me, that you kind of put a target on your own forehead when you take on a project such as this. I have read reviews that have been negative (Michiko Kakutani) and glowing (Sarah Lyall), and that’s just in the New York Times. Maybe it’s because I have known this writer, maybe it’s because Curtis sets the novel in our old neighborhood, maybe it’s because the work is so cleverly conceived, but I did quite like this story and the way Curtis brings Miss Elizabeth Bennet (Liz) and her family into the 21st century.
I would guess that most people who pick up Eligible are doing so because they are already familiar with Pride and Prejudice, and I can assure you that Curtis Sittenfeld doesn’t mess with the ending of the story. In fact, she remains faithful to the original in plot, structure, and the portrayal of the main characters’ personalities. Thus, Jane is sweet and lovely, Liz is pretty with wit and intelligence, Mary is dull and pedantic, and Kitty and Lydia are immature and annoying. Mr. Bennet is aloof from his family (except Liz) and enjoys a good laugh at their expense, taking nothing very seriously. Mrs. Bennet enjoys shopping and is obsessed with her social engagements and getting some daughters married. The modern twist here is that the Bennet girls are grown women and sexually active (sure to horrify some readers). Jane is nearly 40, living in New York, working as a yoga instructor and trying to get pregnant with or without a husband. Liz, 38, is a successful writer for Mascara magazine, also in NYC, and dating a married man. The other three girls still live at home and don’t work. Mary is the perennial student, always pursuing another degree and mysteriously stepping out on Tuesday evenings, while Kitty and Lydia are CrossFit devotees (a hilarious substitute for following the regiment!) and known for their vulgar and profane manners. Mrs. Bennet is a compulsive shopper and hoarder, and Mr. Bennet has suffered a heart attack and broken an arm, which precipitates Jane and Liz’s return home. Bingley and Darcy enter the picture as doctors working at a local hospital. Handsome Chip Bingley is already known since he was on the reality show “Eligible,” (think “The Bachelor”). Naturally, Mrs. Bennet would love to see him hook up with one of her girls, so when an old friend of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Dr. Dick Lucas, has a Fourth of July barbecue including the Bennets and Doctors Bingley and Darcy, the stage is set for romances to begin, be thwarted, and ultimately triumph. And yes, Sittenfeld does include Charlotte Lucas, cousin Willie Collins (who is a rich tech geek from California), Caroline Bingley and even a feminist writer named Kathy de Bourgh (who is a lot like Gloria Steinem and nothing like Lady Katherine). Instead of Wickham we have Jasper Wick (Liz’s married boyfriend) and Ham Ryan (Lydia’s CrossFit instructor). I won’t spoil the fun by telling you any more about them.
Here is the tricky part with doing an updated Pride and Prejudice: in modern Cincinnati (which is NOT an oxymoron), the social situation is quite different from Regency Era England. In Austen’s world, women had very limited opportunities, social rank and the integrity of one’s reputation were invaluable, and the vagaries of inheritance and entailment laws could take a family from the heights of glory to the depths of despair. For Austen’s Bennet sisters, financial and social ruin were imminent, and there wasn’t much the young ladies could do about that other than behave themselves and try to attract wealthy husbands. Sittenfeld’s modern Bennet sisters have more agency. They possess the ability to get their own lives together, with much less risk of social stigma and alienation if they never marry. So how does Sittenfeld create that tension which is so essential to P&P? Well, there are both economic and societal components involved. First, Mr. Bennet’s inept financial management has left the family on the verge of losing their home. Moreover, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have no health insurance, and the bills from Mr. Bennet’s hospital stay are exorbitant. Liz tries to get the ball rolling for the Bennets to downsize: fix up the decaying ancestral home, put it on the market, and get the younger Bennets employed and housed independently. Of course, Mrs. Bennet and the younger girls are furious with Liz, and several unexpected obstacles threaten her plan. Regarding social mores, Sittenfeld has devised a gender-related plot line that I would not wish to spoil, but I thought it was an ingenious way to work the Lydia/elopement component into the story.
Is it great literature? Nah, but it’s fun. The pride and prejudice of the characters, particularly Liz, are prominently displayed. Darcy seems a little less heroic than in Austen’s P&P, but this is a modern tale where women can help themselves, and the good turn he does for love of Liz is still touching. And every time I came across a reference to the Skyline Chili in Oakley (which Dr. Darcy loves because he’s cool) or Graeter’s ice cream or the Awakenings on Hyde Park Square or Menlo Avenue (mentioned once), my heart did a little dance. Next time I visit, I plan to drive along Grandin Road and look for the Tudor house that the Cincinnati Bennets owned.
I expect that among Austen fans, there will be division over the merits of Eligible, but I, proud Cincinnatian with a distinct prejudice for Curtis Sittenfeld, vote yea.