Read it? I hadn’t even heard of it. Despite having read all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books.
Ah, well, it all made sense when I recognized that it was a retelling of Pride and Prejudice.
See, not REALLY a Curtis Sittenfeld novel. Merely Curtis Sittenfeld in Jane Austen’s clothing.
But, then, this first sentence: “Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife.”
Cincinnati? Really? Now, that’s fun, I thought, smiling. Not suspecting, yet, that I would be smiling through much of the 400+ pages to follow, and laughing out loud (LOUD) on several occasions.
Eligible became my go-to read. In a stack of exceptional reading, this is the one which I saved until last, the one I wanted to fall asleep afterwards, the one I wanted to sneak a few pages of in the mornings.
Above and beyond, the funnest part is the way Curtis Sittenfeld has updated both style and story. Austen’s novels are comedies of manners but meticulous records of the social sciences too.
Eligible is, of course, preoccupied by matters of class.
“Mrs. Bennet shook her head. ‘When people adopt, God only knows what’s in those genes.’
‘God only knows what’s in any of our genes,’ Liz said, and Mrs. Bennet drew herself up into a haughty posture.
‘I beg your pardon,’ she said. ‘Your father and I both come from very distinguished families.’”
But just as Jane Austen’s Bennet family no longer comfortably inhabits their customary position of privilege, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Bennets are slipping as well.
The family Tudor home is a suitable symbol of ths decline (and the reference to health issues highly appropriate, given that it’s Mr. Bennet’s heart condition which has called his daughters home again).
“It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could no longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he – they – had grown weary and inflexible.”
These subtle details are what makes Eligible such a success. Simply drawing a parallel, having all the Bennet sisters sitting at home in the twenty-first century, wouldn’t be credible. In this updated story, the two oldest sisters have successfully established themselves in New York City and return to Cincinnati to fulfill family obligations.
“‘In New York, I play the wholesome-midwesterner card, but when I’m back here, I consider myself to be a chic outsider.’ Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”
Liz is still the star, the one with whom readers are meant to identify, though she is as gently flawed in this retelling as in the original.
“Mr. Bennet reached out his arm and patted Liz’s knee. In an uncharacteristically serious tone, he said, ‘Lizzy, you’ve been a voice of reason amid a cacophony of foolishness. It was very good of you to come home this summer.’”
Her relationship with her father is close, but the situation with her mother is strained. Liz is not the kind of daughter Mrs. Bennet has yearned for, and although she is not overtly malicious, she is obliviously unkind.
“While gazing at herself in the mirror, Mrs. Bennet added, ‘I hope Lydia’s not making a mistake moving in with Ham. You know what they say about when men get the milk for free.’
‘Except that he’s supporting her. She hasn’t even tried to get a job.’
Liz’s comments seemed to please Mrs. Bennet. ‘Lydia’s such a pretty girl,’ she said approvingly.”
There are no longer servants on the scene, but there are references to the hired help, smatterings as in the original.
“How rare it was, Liz thought, to be surprised in a good way by the members of her family.
‘Did you and Dad go to Mervetta’s funeral?’ Liz asked.
Kitty still hadn’t looked up. ‘Of course,’ she said.”
And Mr. Bennet is as often a source of amusement, just as critical and ornery, bumbling and seemingly-well-intentioned (but ultimately just as frustrating as Mrs. Bennet) as ever. But he has some of the best lines (as is true in Austen’s original too).
“‘They didn’t get married to spite you guys. They’re in love.’
Mr. Bennet smiled wryly. ‘I suppose they are,’ he said. ‘But that’s a condition that’s acute, not chronic.’”
In short, this truly feels like an homage to Jane Austen. As though Curtis Sittenfeld has truly eaten, drunk and slept in the skin of this 1813 story, then awoke in 2013 and stretched that skin to a perfect fit.
I hope you’ll read it, because there are a dozen sentences which all begin with “Wasn’t it just perfect that she made…?” that I’m itching to say.
Because somehow it manages to be a REAL Curtis Sittenfeld novel after all, which conspires to make Eligible all-the-right-kinds-of-pretty.