I admit that when it comes to Austen re-tellings, and particularly when it comes to Pride and Prejudice, I’m a bit wary. It’s been such a beloved classic that I feel like there are a million Pride and Prejudice re-tellings out there, not to mention all the book series where Elizabeth and Darcy are main characters solving mysteries or suchlike. But I really should have known, if anyone can pull off a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice that actually feels fresh and original and is a fantastic read, that writer would be Curtis Sittenfeld. I absolutely loved Eligible. I got completely engrossed in the story, and at each plot point, marvelled at the way that Sittenfeld managed to truly update the Bennets’ Edwardian concerns to contemporary counterparts. Oddly, it made me appreciate the original much more as well, clarifying at points the social commentary Austen was making about her own society.
I love the changes made to the characters, e.g. Liz Bennet as a feminist magazine writer living in New York whose practicality is manifested in her attempts to stabilize her family’s finances. I also love how while Austen’s original has become almost sacrosanct as a feminist icon, Sittenfeld’s Liz is called out for her self-righteousness. At several points, Liz’s sisters complain about her sudden interest in their lives, when she is based in New York and has no real understanding about their lives. I also love that Jane, despite being unmarried, is fully modern in her approach to satisfying her maternal instincts, and despite her love for Bingley, it is clear that she can live a full and happy life on her own. Kitty and Lydia aren’t just silly and flighty; they’re also CrossFit fiends who follow a paleo diet. Mrs Bennet isn’t just a social climber, she is also racist and homophobic, making Darcy’s sneers over the Bennet family somewhat more understandable. Even Mr Bennet, the sainted voice of reason in Austen’s original, is called out in Sittenfeld’s version for his coldness to his wife, his mismanagement of finances, and his Republican values. Darcy and Bingley are still super eligible, the former because he’s a surgeon and the latter because he literally starred in a Bachelor-type show called Eligible. If Austen’s characters were to live in the 21st century, one can almost imagine this is how they would be.
I’m not completely sure I’m comfortable with how race and gender identity are treated in the story, though Sittenfeld is very careful to voice disapproval (via Liz’s thoughts) of the offensive views (usually Mrs Bennet’s). The Bennets had a black housekeeper, and just the language of how nice it was that some family members went to her house struck me as rather outdated. A minor scandal is caused when a white woman dates a black man, and I wondered how such a thing could cause scandal in this day and age. Then at one point, a trans character is described as having a birth defect, like a cleft palate, and while this is explained as the only language that would make Mrs Bennet (a caricaturishly backwards woman) understand trans identity, it did jar me. Overall, I appreciate how delicately Sittenfeld managed these issues — Mrs Bennet after all is clearly wrong in her views, and characters like Liz view the situations not as sources of shame but rather in terms of how best to smooth over things for her mother. Still, some of how this was treated felt a bit off for a story set in contemporary times.
All that being said, I still really enjoyed this book. It’s certainly one of my favourite Austen adaptations by far, and one of the few I that I think actually succeed at updating Austen’s story for contemporary times. I love the romance between Liz and Darcy (hate sex!), and between Jane and Bingley, and I love the updates to the family dynamics among the Bennets. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a bit of a cheeky twist to a favourite Austen tale.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.