Curtis Sittenfeld Brings the Bennets to the 21st Century

Photo | Submitted "Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

Photo | Submitted
“Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

A few reasons inspired me to pick up Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2016 novel “Eligible.” Most important, I felt something light to read might alleviate the stress of my news-cycle obsession. Also, I had loved the St. Louis-based author’s four other novels, and I somehow missed this one when it was published.

An additional bonus: I had not read Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” the classic Sittenfeld adapted in “Eligible,” since high school, and thus was motivated to reacquaint myself with the wonderfully romantic 1813 novel.

“Eligible” is one of six Austen books that are part of publisher HarperCollins’ The Austen Project, launched in 2013. Thus far, in addition to Sittenfeld, three authors (Joanna Trollope, Val McDermid and Alexander McCall Smith) have taken on the task of reframing a beloved Austen novel in modern times. Sittenfeld is the only American writer thus far—“Eligible” takes place in her native Cincinnati suburbs—and the only one to change Austen’s original title.

“Pride and Prejudice” satirizes the sheltered 19th-century British world—characterized by pride in status and wealth, and prejudice against social inferiority—in which Austen lived. It focuses on the efforts of social-climbing Mrs. Bennet to marry off her five very-different-from-each-other daughters, and the tempestuous relationship between one of them, protagonist  Elizabeth (known as Eliza or Lizzy) and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy aristocratic landowner.

“Eligible” deals with many of the same themes—romance, society’s emphasis on marriage and having children—and has mostly the same cast of characters, often with updated nicknames, ages and professions. Mrs. Bennet seems a bit sillier, snobbier and more self-pitying, with Sittenfeld adding her unacknowledged addictions to shopping and reality television. The Bennets here are heavily in debt, their house going to ruin, and Mr. Bennet’s health is precarious.

Jane, the eldest daughter, is approaching 40; she teaches yoga and resorts to artificial insemination for her chance to bear a child. Clever, responsible New York City-based Liz writes for the magazine Mascara. Middle child, the reclusive Mary, collects online academic degrees, and the youngest girls, Kitty and Lydia, are unemployed, live with their parents and are obsessed with CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets until they find relationships—transgender and interracial—that distress their mother.

Charles Bingley, Jane’s suitor, here known as Chip, is a handsome doctor who has come to town after appearing on a  “Bachelor”-like show called “Eligible.” Like his friend Chip, Fitzwilliam Darcy, too, is a handsome doctor. They are caricatures of what social-climbing mothers like Mrs. Bennet want for their daughters: rich, attractive doctors from good families.

In terms of form, Sittenfeld uses even shorter chapters than Austen—181 of them, in fact, within 481 pages compared to Austen’s 61 in 314 pages. Amid ample white space, they are almost too easy to consume and create the illusion that the plot is advancing quickly. At times, I found it choppy.

Some of the 21st-century updates were effective as well as amusing. Sittenfeld aged the sisters some two decades, adjusting “spinster” age to a modern-day 35-plus. Her Jane, without marital prospects as her biological clock ticks away, resorts to artificial insemination. The lowlife character-revealing backstory to Jasper, Liz’s philandering ex, features a misogynistic-racist incident while he was in college. And “hate sex” is the basis of Liz and Darcy’s formative relationship.

I felt that other changes were too bizarre. The TV dating show, “Eligible,” factors largely into a somewhat ridiculous “happily ever after” ending. Kitty and Lydia tend to speak like 5-year-old boys. I was baffled by the character Willie, Liz’s very odd, affluent and singularly unattractive in every way step-cousin, who marries her bestie Charlotte Lucas.

Still, Sittenfeld is a wonderful story teller—and “Eligible” provided the chick lit chuckles this constant reader needed.