Hello, book people! Sorry for my brief hiatus; there was a lot going on in my personal life that I had to attend to, which meant I was neither reading nor blogging for a couple of weeks. Anyway, I’m here to talk to you about Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld, so let’s get started!
There’s something about a good Jane Austen modern retelling that I cannot resist. In addition, my hometown pride in Cincinnati goes deep, so I actually squealed when I learned from the Book Riot podcast that Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice reboot would be set in my beloved city of Cincinnati. I got so impatient waiting on my library hold that I used my Amazon gift cards to order the hardcover. That makes it all the more complicated to talk about my feelings about this book. I stayed up until 11:30 (late for me) on a work night to finish this book, even though objectively I didn’t think I was enjoying it that much while I was reading it. Even though I don’t know how I feel about the book, I am sad that it is over. To sum up my feelings about this book the way I’m sure modern day Liz would sum up her relationship to Darcy: it’s complicated.
A large part of the reason I don’t think this book quite did it for me is that I have already seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a fantastic YouTube series that modernizes the books, sticking close to the original plot with modern twists that oh so beautifully bring P&P into the modern day as a vlogger’s rants about her life. I loved this series and I think some inner part of me wanted Eligible to feel similar. It did not.
Another large part of what kept me from forming a solid opinion about Eligible was the sheer level of distraction that reading a book set in one’s own city presents. I kept pausing to underline places I’ve been or references I love—unlike cities like New York, Cincinnati doesn’t get to star in many novels (Hello, Beloved). I could feel that Sittenfield was a Cincinnati native by the pride with which she name dropped and inserted specifics again and again. It almost felt like there were a lot of unnecessary specifics, but they may have just stuck out to me because of my hyper aware excitement about the book’s setting.
I had inklings that this book wouldn’t be what I wanted from it when the first line of the book was in no way a twist on the “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” line. Still, I love seeing how different authors approach the challenges that modernizing the marriage-is-dire plots of Austen’s novels present. To start with, Sittenfield aged up the girls so that it made a bit more sense for their poor mother’s nerves to be so overworked about her daughters’ marital fates. Jane is a yogi, which makes absolute sense given her forgiving nature and tendency to see the best in people.
It’s also fun, if weird, that Bingley (“Chip” in the book) was on a reality TV show from which the book gets its name. Not entirely sure how to figure that into the equation, except that the reunion show gives him a good excuse to skip town when he learns that (spoiler) Jane has become pregnant via artificial incrimination before they met. This creates more of a clear reason why Bingley leaves, and gives us a Jane who for much of the novel is on the precipice of single motherhood at 40. If I could interview Sittenfield, though, I would ask what made her throw this twist in; I didn’t quite understand what it added that Bingley had been on a reality show, except to make him a little bit famous and add a few plot points.
Modern Cincinnati Darcy and Chip are working at Christ Hospital and Darcy, in spite of the fact that we later learn he has an extreme love for Skyline (!!!), deplores the city in front of Liz. This alone made it pretty hard for me to fall in love with Eligible’s version of Darcy–you don’t diss my city, bro. Even if the idea of Darcy eating Skyline makes me tingle with happiness.
About half way into the book, Liz and Darcy start to have hate sex, which I would’ve found more delicious if it had come about any other way than Liz actually looking at Darcy and saying “Let’s have hate sex.” What can I say, I’m a romantic. A few more heated glances would’ve been appreciated, pre hate sex.
Like many Austen modernizers, Sittenfield plays with ideas of gender and sexuality in interesting ways, even if it seemed at times that things strayed quite far from Austen’s original plot design. Rather than Wickham being one character, he becomes Jasper Wick and Lydia’s (spoiler) transgendered Cross Fit instructor, Ham (I’ve just realized their names together spell Wickham—clever!) This results in some interesting modern day delimmas, such as Mrs. Bennet freaking out about Ham being transgender and Liz being “the other woman” in Jasper Wick’s open marriage with his wife. Although these ideas wouldn’t have been the slightest blip on Austen’s radar, they do allow for the same type of social commentary of which Austen herself was so fond, meaning that the book stays true in tone.
All in all, I still don’t know how I felt about Eligible. When I move to Pittsburgh in August, though, I know I’ll be pulling it back out to get another taste of the city I love. Hopefully I’ll be more capable of relaxing now that my favorite references are already underlined, letting me form a firmer idea of this book.
I’m two books into the Austen Project reboots and have no intention of stopping. If nothing else, this is such a fun concept for someone who spent a weekend in Bath and took a Jane Austen course in college.