Reviewing Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligable

It doesn’t matter that there hasn’t been a ‘new’ Jane Austen story in 200 years, all the remakes reinventing the original stories have kept me very entertained. This is the latest modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice and part of HarperCollins’ Austen project. They are asking famous authors to re-imagine all of the books and Eligable is the forth in the list. By Curtis Sittenfled (she of Prep and American Wife fame) this is the one retelling I was really looking forward to; I judged this book by it’s cover and I absolutely love this cover (sorry to the US cover but this one is so much better!)

Jane, a nearly 40 year old yoga teacher and Liz, a magazine writer live in New York and enjoy it. They are well educated and somewhat happy: Jane after divorce and heartbreak has turned to science to help her conceive and Liz has been in love with a man for almost two decades (even though she is this man’s everything he is very happy to marry someone else). When Mr Bennett has a heart attack they return to Cincinnati and find that things aren’t what they used to be. Mrs Bennett usually has time to prepare for her daughter’s visit but as this was an emergency Liz and Jane find the house genteelly falling apart. Mr Bennett’s health isn’t a concern to anyone (not even himself all that much), Mrs Bennett’s shopping habits are spiralling, and younger sisters Kitty, Lydia, and Mary are all living at home unemployed and not at all concerned about that.

It was ridiculously fun to read how Sittenfeld updated some of the most iconic Pride and Prejudice scenes for Eligable. Liz confronts Darcy when he criticises the women of Cincinnati (“so I’m probably what — more like a B for the coasts? Or a B-minus? If you have a minute to figure it out, be sure to let me know.”) Lydia and Kitty are CorssFit enthusiasts (“Another source of irritation,” Liz notes, “was that her sisters looked fantastic.”) who delight in embarrassing the family by thinking Mary trying to charade Legends of the Fall is actually her “going pee!” or “exploding with diarrhoea!” or “having your period!”

I hadn’t read any of Sittenfeld’s other novels so had no idea just how sharp the writing would be. Liz knows full well of the absurdity of her situation, the hypocrisy in her family, the self-contradiction. (In one brilliant exchange she is telling Darcy just how wonderful Cincinnati is. He assumes she’ll be staying then instead of returning to New York. The answer to that is a resounding no). Sittenfeld has set Eligable the same way Jane Austen did, in short, snappy chapters. In total there are 181. Usually I am not a fan of this but in this case I thought it was very nicely done. Chapters ended on profound and absurd notes; all of which made me keep on reading.

One of the best moments of Eligible was Sittenfeld updating Darcy’s declaration of love. Darcy is so wonderfully rude and Liz in return is very, very funny. “You’re not beautiful, and you’re not nearly as funny as you think you are,” he says to which she replies “but I still consider you a jackass.” Their relationship as individuals in their late 30s with successful careers was very, very believable. From the accidental-on-purpose meetings when both are jogging, to the hate sex initiated by Liz after one particularly sweaty run, to her realisation that she loves him and understanding that it might be too late – all of it is sharp, poignant, and very astute.

There are moments I didn’t enjoy, of course there were. At one point Liz realised that Mary was proof of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant. Mary, studious, feminist, and not interested in relationships or sex had more of a role to play in Eligable than in Pride and Prejudice  but I think her character was still short-changed. Both Lydia and Kitty end up in relationship with much, much other people – I can understand why this was done but didn’t sit completely right with me (cradle snatching was all I kept thinking yet no one else cared). Neither Kitty nor Lydia were as crude or shocking as I expected them to be – I think it could have been pushed even further but I am biased and freely admit to being so – they love CrossFit therefore I love them. The title of the book refers to a reality TV dating show and I think the ending when the TV show Eligible plays a huge part in Eligible was slightly rushed. I would have enjoyed to have it drawn out a little longer, to savour the plot threads coming together.

However these were small issues and far between. Reading Eligible was very much like visiting old friends who have grown up and got a lot more common sense (Charlotte Lucas’ relationship with Cousin Willie is a particular example of this) and a lot funnier. The sex and swearing only added to Eligible and I am very glad both were there.  The fact that the novel discussed issues of America’s health care system, medical insurance, transgender and interracial relationships (the latter however very, very briefly) only adds to it’s strengths as being a book grounded firmly in 2016.

I really, really enjoyed it and as soon as I finished it The Mothership grabbed it off me, after all she’d heard me raving about it beforehand.

Eligible is published by HarperCollins and is on sale now.

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