Friday, 1 July 2016

Eligible (The Austen Project no. 4) by Curtis Sittenfeld

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 21 April 2016
Published by: The Borough Press
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Publisher's synopsis
This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review
When I first heard about this book, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation.  Pride and Prejudice is a much-loved classic and one of my all time favourite books. I had decided 'not to go there', but curiosity got the better of me in the end.  I didn't expect it to be any good, but I hoped I would be wrong about that.  I was wrong about that.  Apparently, I went in with a prejudiced frame of mind, much like Elizabeth.

It turns out Curtis Sittenfeld knew what she was doing.  She put a fair amount of thought into it and has come up with a really good retelling of the classic. This is not an easy thing to do.  I would have thought it impossible.  All of the significant characters are present, with some slight name variations in a few cases.  Charles Bingley is Chip, Mr Bennet's cousin the reverend William Collins is (step) cousin Willy (and every bit as undesirable as the original). Catherine De Bourg makes an appearance but in a different role, while Caroline Bingley assumes the role of her original and Lady De Bourg combined.  The infamous George Wickham is Jasper, who reminded me of Daniel Cleaver, Helen Fielding's rival to Mr Darcy in the also P&P inspired Bridget Jones' Diary (the one played by Hugh Grant in the film).

As well as providing a modern take on Pride and Prejudice, Eligible also seeks to highlight the vast differences between the early 1800s and present day.  In some ways we can breath a sigh of relief to have been born now rather than then, but in others Eligible demonstrates that the world we live in today is so much madder than back then.

The analogies Sittenfeld has come up with are quite clever.  For example, Mrs Bennett (of P&P) was an overbearing matriarch who lacked discretion and decorum, much to the embarassment of her eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth.  However, her main concern in life was to make sure her daughters were okay in the end.  She believed that, had they not been married off, they probably would have ended up homeless and destitute (or realistically have dropped from upper-middle class to lower middle-class, heavens forbid!).  The point is, she did what she felt she had to do, with good intentions.

I was curious to see how this character would be justified in Eligible.  After all, we now live in a world where woman no longer HAVE to marry to secure a roof over their heads and avoid poverty. Mrs Bennet (of Eligible) is preoccupied with finding husbands for Jane and Elizabeth because they are both 'pushing 40'.  Many mothers in present day probably would become anxious under those circumstances, and so I think this scenario works very well.

While transference of scenarios worked really well, what did not always work so well for me was the transference of characters.  It is unfortunate that Mrs Bennett and Chip Bingley come across more negatively than in P&P.  Unlike Austen's Mrs Bennet, Sittenfeld's character cannot justify insisting her daughters marry men who belong to America's wealthy elite.  I have a problem with the loss of humanity that existed in the original character and, as far as I am concerned, this new character is not Mrs Bennet.  Chip Bingley is so spineless it's really hard to see what Jane would see in him (besides his eligibility).  That he appeared as a star on a trashy reality show isn't the worst thing about him.  Claiming it wasn't his choice and that his sister nominated him for it is an example of what is.  Obviously, not all characters in a novel have to be likeable for it to work.  The two youngest Bennet sisters, Kitty and Lydia, also come across badly.  In P&P, they were shallow and (as remarked by their father) a bit silly, but, unlike the versions in Eligible, they weren't nasty. Yet, this transference worked fine since, unlike their mother, they do at least bear some resemblance to the originals. The flipping of the character of the nasty Lady Catherine De Bourg to the pretty descent feminist writer version, Cathy De Bourg is also fine, since (as mentioned above) she is not the same character as the original.

I really enjoyed Eligible.  If Pride and Prejudice is as beloved to you as it is to me, my advice is don't worry - it's fine.

Spoiler alert!
I particularly loved how the book concludes.  Not with Liz and Darcy but with Mary Bennet.  The point being, of course it is wonderful to find love, marry and live happily with that person.  However, it really isn't the end of the world if a person doesn't find love, isn't seeking love and chooses not to be coupled, let alone become someone's spouse.  After all, despite what society teaches us, being a single person (regardless of one's age) is a viable option.

Eligible is a recommended 2016 Summer Read 

More Austen Project reviews

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no 1)

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (no.2)

Emma by Alexander McCall-Smith (no 3) 

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