As a general rule I try to avoid sequels and modernizations of classic literature when possible (i.e, when it’s advertised glaringly). Sometimes though, the story is so good (Pride & Prejudice) and by a writer I have enjoyed (Curtis Sittenfeld), I can’t resist. Such is the case with Eligible, Sittenfeld’s go at a modern retelling of Austen’s best (imho). The crucial elements of the story are still there. Lizzy Bennet meets and despises haughty, rich Fitzwilliam Darcy. She has four sisters, most of which are a pain in the ass, troublesome parents, and a fierce independent streak. Sittenfeld’s modernization just plays with the setting, specifics, and language while delivering a delightful modern look at ‘first impressions.’
Lizzy Bennet has been living for years in New York City, working for a magazine and spending time with her favorite sister Jane, a yoga instructor who also lives in the city but less independently and more on her parents’ dime. The Bennet family hails from Cincinnati and the two oldest daughters return their when their father has a heart attack. Their high strung mother and selfish and/or oblivious sisters Mary, Kitty, and Lydia are not enough of a support system to ensure Dad’s food is healthy, he gets to appointments, etc., etc. A significant difference in this family versus Austen’s is that the girls are all significantly older, reflecting the time in which this version is set. Jane is 39, Lizzy 38, and so on with Lydia clocking in at I believe 22. The change works, as it is hard to imagine a mother in modern times fretting whether her children will be spinsters if they were to actually be the same age as Austen’s Bennets. The novel opens with Mrs. Bennet discussing a young doctor recently moved to the area, Chip Bingley, and how he’d be a perfect match for one of the girls. At a cook out at the Lucas’, Jane and Chip do hit it off. At the same time, Lizzy overhears haughty-but-hot Dr. Darcy telling Chip Cincinnati women are boring and not nearly attractive enough to tempt him. And so begins the push-pull of the two main couples of Pride & Prejudice.
The novel ends basically the same so I won’t worry about spoilers; instead I’d rather cover what I thought was appealing about the update and what didn’t work for me. Sittenfeld’s Lizzy is significantly more irritating than Austen’s. I’m not sure why but with the original novel, one can understand why Lizzy takes SUCH offense to Darcy’s comments. In this day and age comments like those wouldn’t be that shocking, so for her to immediately dislike him, and confront him about those specific words, is not in line with the Lizzy that lives in my mind. She seeks out arguments with him as well, which I found a bit out of step with expectations. That being said, Sittenfeld’s Darcy is also quite a bit nicer than Austen’s, so perhaps that is the reason I reacted this way. Kitty and Lydia are both more irritating and less idiotic, if possible. Sittenfeld’s Mr. Bennet has somehow inherited a large fortune which has slowly dwindled, so their lovely home in a wealthy Cincinnati suburb is in disrepair. The remaining three Bennet girls live at home and don’t actually work. Is that something rich people do? I can’t imagine any parents I know letting adult children live totally free and not bothering to search for employment at all. Kitty and Lydia’s obsession with CrossFit is kind of humorous. Mr. Bennet is a bit more clueless and more willfully so. Most of the differences in character worked for me, just not Lizzy’s. Sittenfeld also did well with the pacing of the language, though some of it was a little high-brow to be realistic conversation these days. I can’t recall the example, but I remember thinking at one point “Ok, this is her trying to write like Austen, no one talks like that.” I wish I could remember the example but oh well. Overall, even if some of the words were a little anachronistic, the pacing and subtlety with humor was dead on.
With a modern twist on an old tale, some of the drama is a bit more slapdash; a reality show, sperm donors, transgender people, rich step-cousins, and snobbish frat-boy antics take the place of the high stakes of elopements both foiled and successful, and laws regarding property ownership and succession. Basically if you love Pride & Prejudice as much as I do but aren’t a stickler for every little detail, you’ll enjoy this retelling.