As I’ve said more than once before, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time and I keep a close eye on adaptations. I may not like every version of the story people cook up, but I love weighing them against each other and seeing what tiny improvements each version can make. Just recently I rewatched the Keira Knightley movie, and while I find almost everything in that version to be not quite as good as the 1995 BBC mini-series, I was reminded that the movie does a GREAT job of using clothes and houses to really play up the class differences between the Bennets and the Bingley/Darcy crowd.
Anyway, when I saw that Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book Eligible was a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, I was very interested. Sittenfeld is probably best known for her first novel Prep, about a girl at a New England boarding school. I actually thought Prep was incredibly grim and unpleasant to read, but I quite liked American Wife, which was an imagined, fictional version of Laura Bush’s journey to become a somewhat unwilling First Lady. So I went into Eligible fairly ambivalent about Sittenfeld and I’m still not sure how I feel, although did enjoy the book.
There’s no point summarizing the plot–this is a very loyal retelling of Jane Austen’s classic story about the Bennet sisters, moved forward in time to modern-day Cincinnati. To be completely honest, I went into the book thinking that there was no way anything could live up the Lizzie Bennet Diaries–I LOVED that video adaptation of the story and I couldn’t imagine another modern telling matching up. But Eligible did win me over, at least a bit, as it went along.
There were a few things I thought it did really well:
- Sittenfeld really hit it dead on with loads of her cultural references as she moved the characters to the present day. For example, Jane is a yoga teacher, Darcy is a surgeon, and Kitty and Lydia are totally into CrossFit. Over and over again she would introduce a character with his or her modern identity and I would say, “Oh, of course! That makes total sense.”
- In the books, the Bennet sisters are in the 15-21 age range and most modern updates up that a bit to make everyone legal, but even my beloved Lizzie Bennet Diaries only puts the older girls in their late twenties. In Eligible, Jane is turning 40 and Lizzie is right behind her. Which is perfect! A huge part of the original story is the pressure the girls feel to get married, and that panic rings so much more true in the modern story when Jane and Lizzie are both approaching 40. To me, this was the one thing that Eligible has really added to the Pride and Prejudice oeuvre.
- Darcy and Lizzie came off pretty hot, actually, which doesn’t always happen.
But I have to admit that there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me:
- This is often a problem with Pride and Prejudice adaptations, but it takes the book a while to get going. If you’re Jane Austen, I’m happy to read a third of the book where people futz around before the love story kicks in. For other mere mortals, it means that I spend quite a few chapters being like, “Come on, come on . . . “
- I would say that 90% of the characters, plot, and structure of the book are straight from the source material. The characters have the same names, the chapters are structured the same ways, etc. So when she does make a change, it must mean something, right? There were two major places where Eligible diverged from the original and I am still not quite sure why. First, Wickham is split into two characters, which gives a whole new spin to a couple of key plot points and I can only assume that this is because we all have larger social networks today? Hmm. And second, this book proceeds a bit past where the original ends and . . . again, I’m not sure I see the point.
- Lydia. Oooh, Lydia is problematic. In order for the plot to move along, Lydia has to do some fairly outrageous things. Jane Austen’s take seems to be that Lydia was, if not evil, certainly dumb and thoughtless; by the end of the book (200-year-old spoilers), Austen seems to have decided that Lydia has made her bed and now she can lie in it. In our previous discussions of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we all talked about how much we liked their take on Lydia, which made her much more sympathetic and made her actions more understandable. Sittenfeld’s Lydia is pretty much in the dumb and thoughtless mold, but the way Wickham is now handled makes the end of her story feel quite different. I don’t feel like Lydia has to be sympathetic–a big message in the story is about family loyalty, even when you might not like that family–but it was a significant enough change that it felt like Sittenfeld was trying to make a statement. And I think that statement was, even if you’re dumb and mean things might work out if you have a responsible older sister? I don’t know.
Overall, I thought Eligible was snappy and fun to read and if you’re a Jane Austen completist like I am, you’ll enjoy it. But if I am going to recommend Pride and Prejudice-inspired material to someone, this ones falls down on the list under the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bride and Prejudice, Longbourn and even Bridget Jones’s Diary.
After reading your review, I decided that I didn’t care about any of the things that bothered you, so I put myself on the very long library hold list for this. When it finally came in, I realized that while I didn’t have any of your problems with it, I had a slew of different issues, which include some spoilers. I didn’t actually like any of the characters, including Bennets. The only character I fully liked was half of the Wickham, and I thought some of the book came across as transphobic, even when it was trying to address that issue head on. I did have exactly your experience though – even though I’m not sure that I liked the book, I couldn’t seem to put it down, either, and I read it in just a few days.
After discussing with Rebecca the trickiness of writing a modern version of Jane Austen, since the social dynamics are so different now, she sent me this discussion of an alternative approach on Tumblr, which I think is a clever idea: http://zenosanalytic.tumblr.com/post/152366924723/pride-prejudice-a-modern-adaptation