Book Review: “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld

In this modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic British novel “Pride and Prejudice” there aren’t zombies or sea monsters (thank goodness) but there is reality TV. As someone with an English undergrad and English Literature master’s degree and a library science master’s degree, I’m a bit of a purist/traditionalist when it comes to classic literature. Usually I think: leave it be, it’s a classic for a reason. Which honestly goes against all my creative instincts because as a creative writer I personally love playing with expectations and norms.

So where does that leave me with something like “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld where the author has taken a classic and put it in the present day? Present day United States (not England as it was in the original). I had avoided other modern interpretations of classics. (Although I did watch the YouTube series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and enjoyed it even though the acting is pretty rudimentary.) Once they started to add zombies (I’m not kidding: see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” 2009 book and 2016 movie) I couldn’t believe it and my little English major heart broke in half. 💔 So when this book came on my radar recently you would have thought I would’ve disregarded it as well. I didn’t because as I mentioned earlier I haven’t been reading much and this was just different and intriguing enough to get me back into reading.

However, I put the breaks on once I realized the err of my ways. Why was I betraying Ms. Jane Austen by reading her characters reimagined? I released the breaks and continued reading once I answered that question for myself. I don’t think Austen would have seen it as a betrayal. She would have read it out of curiosity too. So with that thought I put away my prejudice and finished Sittenfeld’s “Eligible.”

Here’s what I thought. Without prejudice. (Or pride.)

I will admit that even though I put away my English major prejudices by reading this, I still had moments where I bristled and my prejudices made themselves known. I think my primary thought throughout the novel is that while in the original novel Austen writes about having pride and prejudice, she doesn’t judge her characters. Mrs. Bennet and Lydia, Kitty and Mary Bennet are ridiculous yet as a reader you never feel like Austen is judging their ridiculousness. In “Eligible” the opposite is true. I feel like Sittenfeld was constantly judging the characters. Some of the plot decisions she makes are in and of themselves a judgment. One thing that was glaringly different to me is that she mentions politics and characters’ political beliefs (at one point former United States President Barack Obama is mentioned [this novel was published in April 2016]) and in my opinion uses that as a way to judge the characters. Now perhaps I’m reading too much into it because I live in the same country and time period in which she writes. And since I am a lot more familiar with 2016 United States than I am with 19th century England and its political landscape, perhaps the politics and political issues stand out to me more than they do in the original novel. However, I feel like she makes plot decisions and changes things more dramatically than is needed. I won’t divulge to what I’m referring since that would give things away (and some of you may want to read this novel).

However she does make some good decisions too and for that I will give you a slight plot summary. In Sittenfeld’s retelling the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet goes by Liz and is from a wealthy family that’s fallen on hard times. She grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and along with her older sister Jane has spent the last fifteen years living in New York City. At the start of the novel Jane Bennet is about to turn 40 and is a yoga instructor while Elizabeth “Liz” Bennet is 38 and a journalist for a woman’s magazine. The three younger Bennet sisters (Mary, Kitty and Lydia) still live at home and don’t have jobs (they are in their 20s). Mary has gotten a lot of graduate degrees (sounds like me) and Kitty and Lydia are devoted to the exercise fad CrossFit (not like me). At the start of the novel a bachelor named Chip Bingley has moved to Cincinnati and Mrs. Bennet is determined that he should marry one of her daughters (since all 5 of them are single). Bingley is a doctor and former reality show contestant (Sittenfeld’s version of “The Bachelor” is called Eligible and gives the novel its name). Sittenfeld has also created a few original characters (I won’t mention those as that gives away plot details).

The primary question one asks when reading something that is a modern retelling or interpretation of a classic is: Is the story served by doing a modern retelling?

My answer to that question is: No. I’m not being critical just to be critical. I think that I wasn’t Sittenfeld’s target audience for this book. Which is odd to say since I’m a single 40 year old American woman who finds herself living with her parents again. I basically am a Bennet sister. What makes me not the target audience is that I love Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I like the original so much that of the film and television adaptations I prefer the six hour BBC version (with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy) because its length allows it to be the most faithful to the book.

I think that Elizabeth Bennet was a modern character for the time “Pride and Prejudice” (1813) was originally written so of all the characters in this retelling she adapts the best. And Darcy is pretty close to Austen’s Darcy (with modern adjustments [he actually has a job and is worth more than 20,000£ a year]). It’s the more minor characters that suffer in this retelling.

After all is said and done do I recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel? I suppose it depends what kind of reader you are. If you’re like me and a student of classic literature and find yourself asking “WHY?” when you see a classic adapted or retold, then I suggest you DON’T read it. If you don’t mind having a little fun with the classics or you think the classics are boring and need to be changed, then I suggest you DO read it. If you do read it or you have read it, please comment and let me know what you think.

This quote reminds me of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennet.

To get other perspectives on Sittenfeld’s book, read some of the other reviews: Washington Post, New York Times and The Guardian are some.

“Eligible” is #4 in a series of retelling of Austen’s novels called “The Austen Project.” As far as I can tell there were plans to retell six of Austen’s novels yet only four have been completed. I would assume it wasn’t successful for the publisher or they had a hard time finding contemporary authors willing to take on the task and that’s why the last two books haven’t been published. After my reaction to this book I don’t think I will be seeking out the other modern retellings in this series.

Writing Update: Memoir

No update really. I’m hoping the fact that I am reading again on a regular basis will help me become inspired to write. I even felt like reading something I didn’t enjoy will help propel me into writing.

Image credit: Pixabay.

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