Pride and Prejudice Meets The Bachelor

imgresEligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice
Curtis Sittenfeld
Published April 19, 2016
512 pages (hardcover)

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Random House Publishing Group, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What it’s about: In this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family hails from Cincinnati. Drily witty dad and hoarder/online-shopper mom live in a crumbling (and spider-infested) old mansion that they can no longer afford (they’ve squandered a sizable inheritance). Jane and Liz have fled Cincinnati for NYC (where Jane is a yoga instructor and Liz works at a women’s magazine), while the three youngest Bennet sisters still live at home. Middle-sister Mary is reclusive and secretive (because, the family suspects, she is a lesbian) and working on her third master’s degree. Kitty and Lydia are beautiful, unemployed CrossFit enthusiasts who are obsessed with the Paleo diet.

Mr. Bennet’s recent heart attack brings all of the family back together in the family abode. Liz takes charge, trying to get things in order (keeping her dad’s diet healthy, figuring out the family’s finances, putting the house on the market). And while she and Jane are in Cincinnati, they meet two doctors who have just joined the local hospital’s staff: Chip Bingley (who appeared on the last season of The Bachelor-esque reality show, Eligible) and his rude neurosurgeon friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Jane falls quickly for Chip . . . but then he’s off to California to film an Eligible reunion special, leaving Jane to wonder if he ever really cared about her. Liz, meanwhile, tries to figure out what she wants as she is torn between her married lover, Jasper, and her running (and hate-sex) partner, Darcy. 

Why I read it: I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Pride and Prejudice. It is delightful and is my favorite Austen book. It is a classic for a reason. So I was very excited to get an advanced-reader copy of Eligible (which was an Indie Next List pick for May and the #1 LibraryReads List selection for April). And then I managed to convince my book club that we should read this and Pride and Prejudice together. Huzzah!

Rating: 2.5/5

Eligible is one of those books that will show up on all the lists telling you what you should read this summer (or at the beach or on the plane or at the pool). It is light and fluffy and (although looooooong) very easy to read. Under normal circumstances, this would probably not be the world’s best choice for a book-club book (who wants to spend a couple hours talking about a beach read?). But, in light of the fact that it is a modern retelling of the beloved Pride and Prejudice, it was PERFECT.

I got a text from one of my fellow book club members a couple weeks before our meeting that read: “BTW, I finished Eligible. I’ve never been so mad at an author! I love P & P, and she made the Bennet girls sluts. Sigh. That should be a lively discussion.”

The feminist in me cringed at the dreaded “S-word,” of course, but I was excited that she had such strong opinions about the book. And she was right about our discussion.When a book as loved as Pride and Prejudice gets redone, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. The question becomes: what is “right???” There were a lot of differing opinions about what parts of the book Sittenfeld modernized well and what didn’t work at all. Some parts of the book mirror Pride and Prejudice pretty directly and merely try to bring the conflict to present day (using modern clichés, trends, and hot-button issues like CrossFit, reality T.V., hate sex, artificial insemination, and LGBTQ issues). But there are also ways in which the book diverges greatly from the original.

For my texting friend in the book club, Sittenfeld missed the mark for MANY reasons. Chief among those reasons was that the elder Bennet girls weren’t as interesting or as strong as they were in the original. In addition, despite a modernized storyline, Charlotte Lucas made old-fashioned decisions when it came to her relationship with the Bennets’ cousin. And the Jasper Wick storyline didn’t make sense in many ways (he wasn’t desirable enough for Liz; there wasn’t sufficient connection to Darcy).

For me, there were some hits and misses.

A few hits:

  • Chip Bingley as reality-show contestant really worked for me. He’s vain and flip and a little clueless but ultimately sweet. It’s a fun and accurate modernization of his character.
  • The general feel of several other characters are also well captured: Darcy, Caroline Bingley, and Mrs. Bennet fall into this category.
  • The early scenes where the balls from the original book become a game night and holiday BBQ are fun parallels.

A few big misses:

  • The Jasper Wick/Liz Bennet relationship (which is meant to parallel the George Wickham storyline in Pride and Prejudice) falls woefully short. Jasper is married (and cheating on not only his wife but also on Liz), not at all charming, and clearly a douchebag (you get that feeling long before you find out why he and Darcy aren’t fond of each other). He really has no redeeming qualities, and, in short, it doesn’t make sense that Liz would be with him. This relationship changes Liz’s fundamental character from the person she is in Pride and Prejudice (it makes her weaker, less confident, and more pathetic).
  • Kathy de Bourgh is morphed into a Gloria Steinam-esque feminist icon with no connection to the other characters (WHAT?!). It makes no sense and doesn’t move the story forward at all.
  • Lydia (who makes terrible decisions and is superficial and irresponsible in Pride and Prejudice) turns out to have the strongest, healthiest relationship at the end of this book . . . with a character with no parallel in the original (who seems to be included in this version just to check another hot-button issue off the list).

Eligible starts out much stronger than it finishes. The beginning of the book stays truer to the original . . . but the end devolves into a hot mess with little connection to the original. Nevertheless, despite the misses and the mess, if you have read and loved Pride and Prejudice, I wouldn’t discourage you from reading Eligible. It is a good choice for a light, summer read. And it’s fun to see how the story has been modernized (and fun to think of ways it could have been done better).

If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice in a while, read the two together. Eligible will make you appreciate Austen’s wit and character development and dialogue. She makes it look so easy; Sittenfeld proves that it’s not.

Want to read along with me? I’m not posting as frequently, but I promise I’m still reading! Here are some of the posts that are coming soon:

  • The obnoxious foodie post: I’m currently reading silver-fox chef Eric Ripert’s new memoir, 32 Yolks, and a debut novel about a waitress in a fancy NYC restaurant, Sweetbitter (a LibraryReads List selection for May; this excerpt appeared in May’s issue of Bon Appétit).
  • Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: This is the latest by the author of the fantastic Little Bee. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List pick, and a LibraryReads List selection for May 2016.

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