Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
I’ve spent the last 20 years in a love affair with Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I need a break from the world, when my reading mojo needs a jump start. I spent an entire summer re-reading it over and over when I didn’t have any other books with me. I didn’t have to go to class in grade 12 English when we studied it because I already knew it so well.
For almost the same amount of time I have more or less shunned any derivative of P&P retellings, spin offs or stories “inspired by.” There have been exceptions: I did really enjoy Darcy’s Passions, Death Comes to Pemberly was well done and of course Bridget Jones’ Diary is a classic in its own right.
But generally, I’m not a fan.
So I was apprehensive about reading Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld (who was mentioned in my recent love, The Name Therapist!). I’d recently been burned by a modern retelling of Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (who generally is one of my favourites) and wasn’t so excited about that happening with my #1 favourite book of all time.
And yet, what I had read about Eligible was positive.
I spent an entire day with this book, unwilling to leave it.
Elizabeth Bennet lives in New York but is summoned home to Cincinnati after her father has a heart attack. She and Jane come back to help look after the family and the house and make sure that their dad eats less meat and more greens. While she’s there, Liz meets Darcy and Jane meets Bingley and the classic story spins out much as expected.
My big issue with McCall Smith’s modern Emma was that Emma was an asshole. She was shallow and not that clever and really just wanted to cook and clean a house her husband bought for her. There was nothing modern about her! Sittenfeld manages to jump this hurdle with aplomb. Liz is very much a modern girl – she has a successful career writing for a magazine; she enjoys her work. And far from being a pathetic spinster, she’s had a series of relationships, always returning to one less-than-ideal situation with one Jasper Wick, our Wickham.
While Sittenfeld definitely moves the story through certain P&P plot points, a lot of it is shed in order to make the story more modern. Lydia doesn’t run off with someone shady, she dates someone who is Transgender. Kitty and Mary are more fully formed characters than they ever were in the original,Mr Bingley was basically The Bachelor and Sittenfeld has no problem introducing sex into the relationships. None of the characters’ ultimate goal is marriage (except for Mrs Bennet, but would we recognize her if she wasn’t obsessed with marrying off her daughters?) so even Charlotte doesn’t run off and get married within an hour of meeting Mr Collins though she does move in with him quite quickly.
A couple of things about this admittedly did bother me. I didn’t see that Charlotte needed to be so overweight, as the only reason someone didn’t want to marry her. In a world where she was professionally successful, couldn’t she just not have met the right person yet? I also hated that our heroine was called Liz. In the original, she’s Elizabeth, Lizzie or Eliza. Ample choices to prevent the use of Liz.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I think that Jane Austen herself would get a kick out of Eligible. Sittenfeld has managed what many other imitators have not: she has created a comedy of modern manners. In this way she has kept the spirit of the original while creating a truly sharp, clever story all her own.