What is it about some stories that have us eager to visit them again and again, from Shakespeare to Homer, Jane Austen to Stephanie Meyer? If it’s not well-written or creative enough, you run into the danger of being seen as fan fiction instead of a unique literary work. Eligible is Curtis Sittenfeld’s irreverent reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s 2016 and when Mr. Bennett has health complications, Liz and Jane reluctantly leave their busy Manhattan lives to go home to Cincinnati for the summer. Jane is 39, a yoga instructor, and contemplating IVF and a life of single motherhood. Liz is 37, an outspoken feminist who writes hard-hitting and thought provoking essays for a magazine called Mascara, but finds that most people only recognize her name for conducting a famous celebrity interview she wrote about a few years prior. Liz Bennett’s younger sisters are all still living at home, obsessed with cross-fit (Kitty and Lydia) or working on a third degree (Mary). Did I mention that Charles Bingley is a reality TV star who competed in a “Bachelor” type show called “Eligible” and his terrible sister Caroline is his manager?
Although the book gets off to a slow start, the chapters are short and quippy, and I was quickly engrossed in the story. To be honest, I had forgotten how funny Jane Austen is — Pride and Prejudice was meant to be a satirical take on high society. The Bennetts are completely unbearable at times, but in very realistic ways. Kitty and Lydia make dick jokes at completely inappropriate times, Mrs. Bennett is completely overbearing and refuses to face reality (like many mothers I know — hi, Mom!), and Liz is smug and overconfident. I think Sittenfeld does an absolutely brilliant job of bringing the Bennetts to the 21st century — and she manages to tackle gender and sexual identities, feminism, and social media along the way. I liked how Sittenfeld set up the relationship between Liz and Darcy. In this retelling, Darcy is a successful neurosurgeon who has begrudgingly found himself in Cincinnati. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but let’s just say it’s a very realistic 21st century romance including all the usual hang-ups about how long to wait before texting someone. However, one thing that I didn’t like about the book was Sittenfeld’s character of “Ham” — one half of Austen’s Wickham character (Sittenfeld has turned this one character into two different people — a “Wick” and a “Ham”). Spoiler alert — Ham is a transgender person that Lydia ultimately elopes with. While I understand Sittenfeld was trying to further push the story into the 21st century, I found her treatment of transgender issues a little clumsy and tasteless. There were many cringe-worthy conversations, but maybe if I revisit Pride & Prejudice, I would find the Bennett parents equally socially conservative and un-enlightened. I’ll have to think about this a little more before I’m willing to let Sittenfeld off the hook.
If you’re a die-hard Jane Austen fan, you should definitely read this version. However, if you’ve never read anything by Austen or have always been intimidated by her, this is a fresh and funny way to dive in. Take this to the beach, listen to the audiobook, or just stay in bed on a rainy day and finish it all in one sitting.
- Check out the summary on Goodreads
- Buy the book on Amazon
- This retelling of Pride and Prejudice is actually part of the “Austen Project” where many different contemporary authors are writing their version of one of Jane’s books. Other books in the series include Northanger Abbey and Emma.
- Looking for other great re-tellings? Autobiography of Red is Anne Carson’s really lovely prose poetry version of the myth of Geryon.
- Jeanette Winterson does an excellent modern version of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale as well as a retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles.