Review: 'Eligible'

Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of the classic Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, is sure to be a big hit. How can it not? It is based on one the most loved novels in the English language. This retelling, Eligible, is part of a series of modern takes on Austen that started with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. I read that novel when it came out in 2013 and was, well, underwhelmed. Taking on Austen is not a task for the faint-hearted. She has a special charm that is not easily duplicated. I’ve passed (so far) on Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, even though I am huge fans of both of them. (Tell me I’m wrong!)

When a friend asked me if I had gotten Eligible I dithered. But the pull of Pride and Prejudice, my favorite Austen novel, re-read many times, was too powerful. I dove in, willingly.

Is P&P Sittenfeld’s favorite novel? It’s hard to say but she certainly knows it well. Maybe the fact that she was able to re-title her book (after a fictional ‘Bachelor’-type show) made it  more personal to her. She’s transplanted the Bennett Sisters to America in the 21st Century, to Cincinnati, her own hometown. Not much else is changed. There are still five sisters named Jane, Lizzy, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. A couple hot bachelors named Darcy and Bingley. A ditzy mother and a laissez-faire father.  I did appreciate some of the changes, the way she updated the story, making Bingley a reality TV star and giving Lydia a boyfriend who is not a Witham but has his own peculiarities. (No spoilers!)

But getting into the novel was a little strange. First off, let me just say, there are 181 chapters! Some are no more than a paragraph or less than half a page. Luckily I read mine on my Kindle so many trees were saved. I’ve never read Sittenfeld before– is this one of her signature styles? Yes, we live in a Twitter society with tiny chunks of communication, but is that your point in slicing the story into so many parts? Is this a statement or just laziness or some deep strategy that went over my head?

My second issue is a little weird but must have occurred to other fangirls. It’s this: how can educated young women in contemporary America have NO KNOWLEDGE of Pride and Prejudice? I know, it’s a story, suspend your disbelief. But so many times in the first half I wondered: don’t they read novels? Haven’t they watched Colin Firth dive into the lake? They are five single girls in America! At least Helen Fielding had the good sense to reference the zeitgeist of Austen in her pastiche of Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary. 

I know. It’s silly. But it floated to the surface while reading. Possibly because the first third to half of the book, while enjoyable, is also awkward. This is the problem with “re-telling.” Either you go so far from the original that many readers don’t even get it (see Bridget Jones) or so close that it makes a Janeite’s teeth ache. So many events in Eligible are so similar to the original that your mind does a little WTF. Once you reach the halfway point and you feel like you’re in more capable authorly hands, things definitely improve. There are some laugh-out-loud moments, some contemporary twists that are genuine and true. I just wish they’d started a bit earlier.

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Have you read any Austen Project novels? What do you look for in these modern retellings? Curious minds want to know.

My own Bennett Sisters (no relation to the originals: Annie, Stasia, Merle, Francie, and Elise) take off on a new adventure, coming in August. Want to hear about it first, get an early peek, find out about giveaways?

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