Review

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

eligible“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.”

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Normally I wouldn’t do a review with spoilers, but it’s hard to talk about this one without them.  Since this is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, part of my review has to do with how the changes in this modernization stack up against the original, and I can’t really do that without revealing a few things.  So, consider yourself warned!

For the most part, the characters stay pretty true to the originals, in the sense that you can see their personalities translating into modern times fairly well.  Mr. Bennet’s trademark wit is on display, as is the empty-headedness of Kitty and Lydia (shown here in their passion for fads).  Mary is still studious, Jane is still mild-mannered (probably all that yoga), and Mrs. Bennet is predictably obsessed with her daughters getting married.

There are more deviations in the other characters than there are in the core family.  For instance, Mr. Collins, a pompous rector in the original book, is here a socially inept computer nerd.  Darcy is a surgeon who rarely spends time at his grand estate.  Wickham (Jasper Wick in this story) is still angling for money out of marriage, but in a different way.  I think the biggest change is Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who barely has a role in Sittenfeld’s work and is a much nicer person than her inspiration was.

Many of the modernizations of situation work well: instead of the Bennet’s house being entailed, they’re about to lose it due to medical bills; Bingley is well known for being on the marriage market because he was on a Bachelor-style TV show; and Liz’s characterization as the “sensible” sister comes through as she helps to navigate her family through their upheavals.

There were a few things that didn’t work so well, though, and they’re pretty big.  For one thing, having Liz and Darcy be “friends with benefits”, while possibly more realistic, doesn’t work with how the two are supposed to be at odds for most of the story.  Also, Lydia’s marriage, not to Wick, but to a transgender man, is uncomfortable for portraying a trans person as being socially unacceptable (as a parallel to Lydia and Wickham running off together is social suicide in the original).

In the main, I think much of the pleasure of this book will come from fans of the classic reading this and noting how the story has been translated to 21st century American culture.  Those who have no familiarity with the Bennets in their native land and time may not respond as strongly to this book, because I think some of the writing and plot twists hinge on knowing how the original played out.  This doesn’t make the book a failure; it just means that you’ll get more out of it if you’ve read Austen’s source material.

I’d caution the author to be careful about using sexual orientation and gender identity as plot devices, but otherwise, Eligible is an fun read for the Pride and Prejudice geeks among us.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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