My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It has been 200 years since Jane Austen wrote her books that are still cherished by lovers of a good story. Those books have been often imitated, updated, and pastiched by other writers. Nothing wrong with that. Writers steal from each other all the time. After all, there is nothing new under the sun, and, anyway, it was all written before by Shakespeare 500 years ago.
Pride and Prejudice, Austen's most beloved book, is, naturally, the one most copied by others, and Eligible is just the latest effort on that front.
Eligible is part of something called "The Austen Project" in which modern authors are invited to reimagine her books. It is the fourth in the series. Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey have already been done by Alexander McCall Smith, Joanna Trollope, and Val McDermid, respectively. I haven't read the other books, but if they are on a par with this one, they would very much be worth reading.
Sittenfeld has transported the Bennet family from the mannered 18th/early 19th century to 21st century hookup culture. Her reimagined Bennets live in Cincinnati. At least the parents and the three younger daughters do. At the time we meet them, Jane and Lizzy had been living in New York, but they had rushed home when their father had to have heart bypass surgery and they lingered to help take care of him, something the ditzy wife and younger daughters seemed incapable of doing on their own.
In this updated version, all the daughters are considerably older than they were in Pride and Prejudice. Jane is pushing forty; Lizzy is thirty-eight; and the younger "girls" range from twenties to early thirties. None have ever been married, although both Jane and Lizzy have been involved in long-term relationships - unfortunately, with married men. Lizzy, in fact, has been led on by Jasper Wick (for which read Wickham) for 16 years and he has never told her that he loves her. And she's supposed to be the smart one!
In due course, we meet Bingley and Darcy, both of whom are doctors at a Cincinnati hospital. Bingley works in emergency care and Darcy is a neurosurgeon. Prior to coming to Cincinnati, Chip Bingley had been on a "Bachelor"-like reality television show called "Eligible," where he had dated some twenty-five different eligible women but in the end could not bring himself to propose marriage to any of them. He meets Jane and, of course, it is love at first sight.
What Jane doesn't tell him is that prior to meeting him, she had been trying to get pregnant using a sperm donor through artificial insemination. What she doesn't realize herself at first is that her last "treatment" was successful and she is now pregnant!
Lizzy and Darcy meet and it is not love at first sight, but they will embark on a relationship that involves insults, flirting, and eventually "hate sex" and we know where all of that is leading.
Sittenfeld has changed some of the characters in significant ways. For example, Cathy de Bourgh is now a quite charming and much-honored feminist (based, I am sure, on Gloria Steinem) whom Lizzy interviews in her job as a writer for a New York magazine. And she isn't related to Darcy and does not have a daughter.
Lydia and Kitty are CrossFit and Paleo diet addicts and are extremely fit, but their manners are just as crude and obnoxious as ever. However, Lydia manages to avoid the odious Wick(ham) and instead falls for Ham, a CrossFit box entrepreneur, who is also transsexual, and Kitty gets the honor and delight of outraging her staid and conservative parents by choosing a black real estate agent as her paramour. Shane had been brought on board to sell the family home, which Mr. and Mrs. Bennet can no longer afford.
The original Pride and Prejudice was a subtle piece of satire on the manners of the age. There's not much that is subtle about this book. It is mostly loud, sometimes bawdy and outrageous, and even laugh-out-loud funny. There is much to like about it because, while Sittenfeld is no Jane Austen, she is a very talented writer.
I think the thing that I liked best about it was the portrayal of Mary. Mary always seemed to get short shrift in the Austen classic and in that wonderful and definitive film adaptation in 1995 that starred Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. She was the iconic middle child who always seemed to get overlooked. But Sittenfeld gives her a distinctive voice and even allows her the last word. The last chapter is all about her and she finally gets to explain herself to us. After 200 years, justice at last for Mary!
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