I’m going to commit to you that this is the last Pride and Prejudice retelling review I will do for a little while. I have been reading a few other things, but they are mostly series (which I finish before I do the review) and nonfiction (which takes me much longer than fiction). But I need to take a break from Pride and Prejudice retellings, myself. Right after I stay up till one in the morning finishing this one…
True story. I kept thinking, I’m almost done with this book, but I was being optimistic without cause at 11:30pm. It was 1:00 when I finally shut the book and turned off the light, and while I am a night owl, my weekday day starts at 7:15 am and I am a nine-hour sleeper and very possessive of my sleep. You do the math. Or don’t. It doesn’t add up. Does that mean that I loved Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (who, by the way and despite the name, is a woman)? Yeeees? Maybe. I enjoyed it. I wanted to finish it. It’s one of the only times super-short chapters have worked on me.
Eligible sort of defies genre boundaries because Sittenfeld defies genre boundaries. She has had one of those fairly typical literary ascensions through short stories and prizes into high-brow fiction, maybe we’ll call it sometimes upmarket and sometimes literary. But somewhere along that line she also started playing with historical fiction and with real life politics and people, and her six books are a strange mashup of literary, best-seller, and the twisting of someone else’s story. Rodham is about Hilary Clinton if she hadn’t married President Bill Clinton. First Lady is based on the life of Laura Bush. (These are both fictional novels.) And Eligible is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. All the while, she maintains fan interest and literary integrity and respect, two things that often don’t go together (for no real reason, I think, besides audience expectations and the publication process). She also wrote Prep, The Man of My Dreams, and the short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It. Actually, I want her career, except my genre crossing would be more literary to speculative fiction, across age groups.
So Eligible is a retelling and a romance, but it is also a book that deserves to stand alone in some of the judgement. Her ratings for all books tend to be below a four, which I find interesting, as I thought this one, at least, was really solid. Then again, I had a few things to complain about: the last chapter that should have been cut; the frequent lack of fireworks between Liz Bennet and Darcy… Maybe that was really it. As for that last chapter, you can just not read it if you are willing to totally believe me that it’s dumb. The book is better without it’s trying-too-hard self, if you ask me (and you kind of are). As for Liz and Darcy, well, I have learned over the past few books that this romance in particular—even though it is one of the great love stories of all time—is especially hard to nail as a writer. Austen was a genius, of course, but realizing that her most famous romance is so difficult to replicate has made me realize it in a new way. I mean, Liz and Darcy are dealing with pridefulness and prejudice, they’re both quite unsufferable and lovable/noble in equal measures, and begin with blindly hating each other (at least on one side), and then they come to slow realizations that unearth the earth-shaking sizzle that was there all along to finally apologize and overcome literary obstacles galore to end up together in the nick of time. Essentially, both the reader and character have to be deceived about their attraction until it has become full-blown love and it’s too late! And the reader has to fall for and pull for two deeply flawed characters. Creating that initial attraction-repulsion and then making it make sense is really a challenge. Bridget Jones accomplished it for the most part. Eligible almost did, but saying there is sexual tension is not the same thing as creating it. At all. I think if Sittenfeld had played up the attraction that Liz was ignoring from the beginning… but I’m not convinced Sittenfeld was trying to do that, anyway.
Instead, she approached Pride and Prejudice from a fresh, modern perspective and I appreciate so many of the clever things that she did. I have no idea how it would read without first having read (and watched and read again) the original story, but the play on the old characters in a modern New York-Cincinatti-California setting was really fun to observe. I think her Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Bennet were especially on point and I recognized these people, no matter how painful it was to see them there the whole time. Actually, all the sisters were amazingly transposed from regency England to twenty-first century America. And personally, I like the way Sittenfeld juxtaposed Victorian language at bizarre times to bring us back to the source text and use Liz’s being a writer to almost make sense of it. There might have been an element of farce (not in a good way) as the modern issues mounted (homosexuality, gender identity, race, feminism, single parenting by choice, alternative parenting options) and modern situations overflowed (reality TV, internet dating, Google searches, hook-up culture, eating disorders, online shopping addiction, fad workouts and diets), but that’s what kept the pages turning at the end when I had stopped buying into the romance, so much. (Okay. I’ll admit. It was over the top, like Little Fires Everywhere and 90s issues, though one reviewer I read argues that too much is part of the modernity Sittenfeld is writing about. I mean, isn’t self-righteousness/”virtue signaling” part of modernity?) There may have been some awkwardness there because the book has a levity and comedy to it and yet it does seem to do some preaching or teaching (the transgender plot was a bit much in its execution and I’m sure would piss some people off, as does the lack of development of the minority characters), but this might just come from Liz’s personality as a meddler and a know-it-all (prideful and prejudiced). One character thing I found fault with was that Liz wasn’t so much prejudiced against Darcy’s money and privilege as she was insecure about her own Midwestern-ness. Maybe that’s also a thing that Sittenfeld was doing with the story to modernize it. It’s hard to say.
While the book did read like there was only one way to see the modern world, one right way to do it, it also had this vein of family being important and working for it, despite all the disagreements and objections, despite the hurts that have built up and offensiveness that persists. I guess I liked the idea that you should pitch in but there’s only so much you can do, and then you just love the a-holes because we all have our ways of being a-holes. (Except Jane. Jane is never an a-hole.) I am a huge fan of big, complicated, bring-it-all-together, pow! bam! endings, and this book had that. Since I kinda hate most reality shows (except food ones where the people are nice), the Eligible (read: The Bachelor) stuff was kinda off-key for me, but I have to admit that it really worked for the over-the-top tone of the book. I was also surprised that Sittenfeld’s writing style is not all that notable, though her weaving of things is. Her writing just got out of the way. Nothing poetic, which belies her writing origins.
I can see why this book might bug you. But I thought it was a top-notch retelling of Pride and Prejudice with some interesting character reads and modern plot twists. If you want another take on Liz and Darcy and you’re at least moderate if not left-leaning, then you should definitely read it. (If you are too far right politically, I feel you will only walk away angry and like you’ve been satirized. Indeed, you have, but I thought, at least at times, in a compassionate way.) If you want a good book to read that mixes upmarket fiction with a classical story and ends up really of-the-moment, then you should try it. If you like this sort of thing, it will probably keep you engaged up to the last page (minus that final chapter). Let me know if the romance worked for you. For me, it was more about the story and about the individual characters as they compare with the originals. And did I mention that it’s humorous? I definitely found some of the banter and the situations funny. Lol.
“‘Speaking of romance–‘ Theatrically, because she was incapable of not mocking herself when initiating sex, Liz winked at Jasper” (p225).
“All those years growing up here, she’d unknowingly been headed toward a selfish, dishonest man” (p230).
“‘It’s worth a try. You just never know.’ / ‘No,’ Liz said. ‘That’s not true. Sometimes you do know'” (p260).
“Liz remained quiet–remaining quiet was the most reliable tool in her interviewing kit” (p304).
“Ignoring Valerie, Kathy de Bourgh said, ‘There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you–that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return'” (p305).