I am a massive Pride and Prejudice fan. I first read it when I was 10 or 11, then read Jane Eyre after that, so both are very close to my heart. I have re-read the former more though, and although I cannot count myself a Janeite (I did not even know of The Austen Project until recently), I had resolved to start acquiring multiple editions of the Austen novel.
As I may have already mentioned on another post about a Jane Eyre retelling, I am very apprehensive of them because of another modern adaptation of a classic that I have read which turned out to be thoroughly unpleasant. But I cannot not read this book; no, I had to read it despite any misgivings.
Eligible is the fourth Austen novel in The Austen Project by The Borough Press. This time it is Curtis Sittenfeld who has been commissioned to adapt the story, and she is known for writing women’s literature (or chick lit, as it’s been called). Her most popular book appears to be Prep, followed by American Wife and Sisterland. She was born in Cincinnati, and a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop1.
I am not familiar with any of Sittenfeld’s other books, but those two aforementioned facts about her feature heavily in Eligible. As intimated on the book’s blurb, the Bennet sisters are natives of Cincinnati, with Jane and Elizabeth having moved to New York. Darcy is a Stanford biomedical sciences graduate, then proceeded to earn his medical degree at Harvard, same as Chip Bingley. Other changes Sittenfeld made to suit modern times are the ages (the Bennets are all older, with Jane and Elizabeth nearing forty), and Lizzy’s love for walking along the countryside replaced with running around the streets of the city.
I made copious notes of all these changes because it amused me to find out and compare, and admire how deftly Sittenfeld has created these changes to fit the essence of the story while set in current times. Some are significant changes, such as Kathy de Bourgh (not at all related to the Darcys), and Mrs. Bennet more repulsively, rather than endearingly, annoying. But then I wonder whether, in the context of Austen’s times, Mrs. Bennet was considered by readers then as terribly off-putting? Do what I think of as comical is thought of as thoroughly objectionable during Austen’s time?
These are just some of the things that Sittenfeld sheds light in her delicious and hilarious update of Pride and Prejudice. It has the elements of the beloved classic, but Sittenfeld takes us on a romp, that there were times that I felt it was almost an entirely different novel because I was not sure whether I was going to get the same ending! I appreciate and commend how she has managed to make it her own while remaining respectful of the source. Along with the contemporary modifications, there are also very timely issues she touches on — race, sexual orientation, single motherhood, the desire or indifference at bearing children — these are just some matters that arise in Sittenfeld’s novel, and I actually love how she handled Lydia and Wickham.
On my research for this review, I came upon an article wondering whether The Austen Project has been a failure thus far, and whether Eligible would inject new energy into it. I have not read any of the previous books (although a friend says the Emma retelling was enjoyable) so I cannot comment on whether this will bring life to the series. However, I can unquestionably say that this is a beautiful take on a most beloved novel; very refreshing and definitely comical. The amount of times I laughed and snorted…I wish I could have been a witness to the wedding happening towards the end of it!
My rating for this initially was 3 marks, mostly because I feel that the very ending of the book was quite abrupt. But now that I think about it, I must say it is probably because I wish I could see more of their lives, more Liz and Darcy in the 21st century, in the same way I am desirous to read more of Liz and Darcy in the Regency era. And I cannot fault the novel, both the original and the update, for that, can I?
I also like how Sittenfeld said in an interview2 that, “by the end of the book, all the Bennet sisters have found their own version of happiness [..]”. I can only wish the same for contemporary women — that we would be comfortable with whatever form of happiness we choose to have for ourselves without the pressure of societal norms.
Eligible is released on 21 April 2016 by The Borough Press in the UK and by Random House in the US.
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or let someone else take care of you–that both are inherently unfeminist. [..] There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”
– Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible
see ratings explanation
Let’s have a chat!What did you like most about Pride & Prejudice?
Did you think this novel was a good modern update of it? Or do you think Jane Austen would be rolling in her grave when she reads it?