Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield
I’m a huge Jane Austen nerd, as most all of you know by now. I’ve read all of Austen’s novels and reviewed several of them for CBR. Two years ago, for CBR6, I embarked upon a Pride and Prejudice project, in which I reviewed several remakes or updates, including Longbourn, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Death Comes to Pemberley, and my second-favorite novelist of manners, Barbara Pym. This year, ElCicco reviewed Eligible while I was waiting impatiently for the library to discover the hold they had misplaced for me, and her review only made me want to read it more. I was not disappointed with the book.
While the overall story arc of Pride and Prejudice remains the same—Mr. Darcy holds prejudices against the Bennets, Elizabeth Bennet is proud about her assumptions, and they learn to come to a better understanding set against a backdrop of barbs and wit—Curtis Sittenfield updates the settings and the relationships. The Bennets live in Cincinnati (and hooray for the Midwest!!! I’m not in Ohio, but I do live in the Midwest and I resent implications that I live in a flyover state). Jane is almost 40 and has decided to become a mother through a sperm donor and insemination, which is not working. Liz is 38 and in a relationship with Jasper Wick, who can’t divorce his wife for Reasons. The younger three sisters live at home: Mary, the permanent scholar, who secretly goes out each Tuesday with nary a hint; Kitty and Lydia are CrossFit fanatics, with vulgar and immature manners. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have their own problems, too. Mr. Bennet has made poor financial choices that endanger the house and family, while Mrs. Bennet is a compulsive shopper and hoarder. Mr. Bennet’s heart attack and broken arm bring the older sisters home from New York, where they come in contact with Chip Bingley, a doctor who was on the reality show Eligible (totally a takedown of The Bachelor) and his best friend Darcy, who is a neurosurgeon recently relocated form the West Coast. The misunderstandings and sparks fly, as they should.
While this occasionally lacks the absolute perfection of Austen’s prose, the story is a delight. Sittenfield updates the cultural contexts to make this a timely and contemporary novel. Some may be horrified or startled that the Bennet sisters are none of them innocent little virgins, but it’s a realistic update. And Sittenfield even addresses LGBT issues in a way that is interesting and compassionate. If you like Pride and Prejudice and are open-minded, I think you will also like Eligible. I’m glad I read it. I’ve requested two other Austen updates from the library—Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, and Val McDiarmid’s Northanger Abbey.