Channeling my inner Jane Austen here: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a reader in possession of a retelling of a classic story has one of two reactions, joy at revisiting a tale that is both familiar and new or complete, unmitigated horror at the desecration of a favorite book.
Well, perhaps I exaggerate just a little, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that people tend to either really like contemporary updated versions of old favorites or the very idea is repellent to them. Personally, I like when a classic is effectively brought into a different time and place because I like spotting all of the allusions and seeing what the author changed and what he or she didn’t and pondering why. With all of that in mind, I approached Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book Eligible with a great deal of curiosity.
In this modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett is a well-to-do editor of a popular women’s magazine, and she has returned to her native Cincinnati with her older sister, Jane, to tend to their parents in the wake of her father’s heart attack. She soon realizes that her parents are deep in debt and her 3 younger, unemployed sisters–who still live with their parents in the family’s home that is badly in need of repairs–aren’t much interested in pitching in to help. In the meantime, Jane falls in love with a charming but flighty doctor, Chip Bingley, whose embarrassing time on a reality dating series is seared in the national memory. On top of all of Elizabeth’s other problems, she also is forced to attend social events with Chip’s obnoxiously arrogant fellow doctor, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Naturally, complications ensue. . . .
If you’re a Jane Austen fan who is horrified of the very idea of the plot of Pride and Prejudice being transplanted into 21st century Ohio, I very much doubt this book will win you over because, though the characters all pretty much have the same names, their resulting stories are very contemporary in focus. However, if you don’t mind those changes, Eligible is an often fun and frequently raunchy modern romance that manages to work in clever allusions to its origins throughout. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the infamously (and gloriously) awkward cousin William Collins and the fleshing out of Elizabeth and Jane’s sister Mary, who doesn’t appear much in the original but pops up more here, always conveniently unavailable because she’s working on her third online graduate degree.
That being said, I do think the book excels more as a satire on modern society–and it certainly lampoons a wide range of 21st century culture, ranging from reality television to Crossfit–than as a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. For me, anyway, several of the updated plots worked, including at least one deviation from the original that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out, but others did not and sometimes even seemed a bit out of left field entirely.
I think a big reason why some of them fell flat for me is that the original story is so rooted in the etiquette and societal norms of Regency England that removing them from that context also removes a lot of the original’s charm and makes the updated version seem, at times, contrived. That was most evident for me in the latter third of this book when so many of Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s woes and complications could have been so easily solved by a coherent text message. In the original, I understand the factors at work in preventing them from clearing the air with each other, but trying to present that same sort of restriction in this contemporary setting seemed at odds with the personalities that had been established for the characters.
Even though I don’t think Sittenfeld was entirely successful in what she set out to do, Eligible works well as a parody of modern foibles and does certainly present an interesting update on a classic tale.
Recommended for those who enjoyed Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport.
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Have you read Eligible? How do you feel about modern retellings of classic stories? Tell us in the comments!