Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Eligible- Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice- Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House
Release Date: April 19, 2016

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. . . . 

As a devotee of the original Pride & Prejudice, and a confirmed Janeite, I wasn't sure about the idea of "modern retellings" of Austen's books. Certainly they've been the inspiration for countless movies and books, and the originals are still incredibly popular. So much of the tension and urgency in a book like Pride & Prejudice comes from the time period and social setting.  Austen's dry wit and irony perfectly critique 19th century society, social structures, class and gender limitations, etc. How can that be translated into a modern setting convincingly?

In many ways, Eligible answers that question with: it can't.  I enjoyed the book: it was a fast and funny read, and I was always eager to see how the next scene or problem in P&P would be retold. But when I closed the book, I would start thinking of all the things that didn't work, or disappointed.  The Bennet family as a whole isn't especially likable and the foundation of family love that is present in the original is thin at best, and I often thought it was non-existent. Even the relationship between Liz and her father isn't shown as being especially close or supportive.  Most of the problems that you sympathize with in P&P were entirely self inflicted in Eligible.  Mr. Bennet inherited money from his family and seems to have spent his entire working career doing nothing.  Mrs. Bennet is a shopaholic with what seems to be beginning hoarder tendencies. Neither parent seem to care about reality, and are in fact completely unconcerned that their house is falling to pieces, their finances are going down the drain, and their three younger daughters are complete wastes of space.  Mary is a professional student with no apparent purpose in life and a much more purposely unlikeable personality than her socially awkward P&P counterpart. Lydia and Kitty remain clueless and act like teens even though they are both in their 20s and have yet to even try to see the point of getting a job.  Lydia in particular seems determined to get by in life on her looks and what she seems to think is a charming personality.  Even Liz, the main character, is often not especially likable.  Much more judgmental than her counterpart, she tries to "fix" the family while visiting after her father's heart attack by railroading them into accepting major life changes.  As much as you agree that the changes are needed (like selling the house they can no longer afford, and attempting to convince the younger girls to actually get jobs and earn their way), Liz doesn't do anything with much tact or thought to anyone's feelings, just harsh necessity.

It doesn't come as a big surprise that Darcy is also not especially likable, is far ruder than the original, and his original declaration of love makes you want to punch him.  What is disappointing is that by the end of the book I was never actually convinced why Liz and Darcy ended up together- there weren't great changes in either of them, no real excuse for Darcy's behavior, and no convincing chemistry or love between them. The only likable main characters in the book were Jane, a yoga instructor who remains sweet and forgiving of Bingley even after he proves to have no spine, no great character, and not much to recommend him other than money and (eventually) loving Jane; and Kathy de Bourgh, Liz's feminist idol whose walk on role is more an acknowledgement that any version of P&P requires a de Bourgh at least in passing than anything else.  Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins ("Cousin Willie") likewise seem to have been written in more because of formula than that they had a useful role to play.  Lydia's great indiscretion, a major turning point in the original and a genuine catastrophe for the whole family, is really only a problem to her conservative parents. Darcy doesn't get to save the day, the family, or sacrifice his own comfort and feelings as a way to show his changed heart and love. Wickham remains a complete and unlikeable jerk, but not the horrible deceiver and seducer of P&P.  

The subtle social criticisms and humor of P&P are in no way subtle in Eligible.  Every possible stereotype is invoked, sometimes for laughs, sometimes you're not sure why. Eligible's humor is more crass than subtle, and social and gender issues hit you like a hammer.  Most of the characters are one-sided and Darcy, one of literature's greatest romantic heroes, just falls flat, as does the development of Darcy and Liz's romance. Liz, whose P&P counterpart is (in an approximation of the word's of Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail) "one of literature's most complex heroines"     is anything but that in Eligible.

What is surprising is that I enjoyed Eligible while I was reading it. It was after I'd finished that the book fell apart for me.  Maybe it's unfair to compare it so heavily with Pride & Prejudice- it's a different author and a different time/social frame.  Maybe the book would stand better as its own story.  But it also seems impossible not to make the comparisons, especially for someone who loves the original book- which is presumably the audience expected to read Eligible.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.

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