Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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PenguinRandomHouse describe Eligible as a ‘modern retelling’ of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This much is true. The plot flows in the same way, the character names are familiar, and the setting is undeniably contemporary. The effect is not the same.

From PenguinRandomHouse:

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

Eligible has all the elements of Pride and Prejudice, yet it feels remote from it. At times I was amused by it, and at others frustrated. Unsurprisingly Sittenfeld has used the same character list, with some working better than others. Darcy’s aloofness is well-drawn, as is Lizzy’s feistiness, and, Jane’s niceness. Mr Benett is a convincing modern interpretation, with turns of phrase that mimic Austen’s pen. Mrs Benett is dramatic and sullen, with Sittenfeld handing her most of the elements of prejudice in her rewriting of the tale. The other Benett sisters are beyond the silliness of Austen’s – and are quite vulgar. Sittenfeld’s update includes a harshness of tone, a level of insults and bad manners that had no place in Austen’s classic. This undermines the ‘scandal’ that becomes a turning point in the original (where Darcy intervenes), because it doesn’t seem so out of place in the person (Lydia), and of the time. Unconvincing. Overall, the tone of Eligible felt wrong, inappropriate almost. Eligible feels like a parody of the literary classic, not merely a modern retelling.

What worked well was the switch of modern themes. Materialism of modern America versus the snobbery of Regency England. Society balls were swapped for BBQs. Strolls were replaced by jogging. Letters for text and email. Since marriage is no longer the determinant of a successful modern woman, Sittenfeld had to devise something else – she chose the ever-louder ticking biological clock as a motivator for a lasting relationship. However, this was not entirely convincing given the use of artificial insemination using donor sperm – not only an update, but a crucial plot point.

Here then is perhaps the fundamental flaw of Eligible. There was not really much at risk for any of the characters. Jane could have happily carried on without Bingley, and the feisty, successful, and independent Lizzy, the same without Darcy. This is a reality of modern life.

I chose this book because of the connection to my 2016 Reading Challenge. Pride and Prejudice was my ‘book read before’, and the coincidence of Eligible being the ‘book published in 2016’ was too tempting. At times, it was close to becoming another of the challenges, to read a book previously abandoned. Proceed with caution. Without the ghost of literary classics past, on its own Eligible is a fluffy and light read. Uncompromising ChickLit.

This book was chosen as part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book published in the year (2016).

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