Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Penguin Random House, April 2016; 512 pp
Reviewed by Kimberly Gibson
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland, takes on a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in her novel Eligible. In Sittenfeld’s version, Hertfordshire is Cincinnati and Pemberley is a California mansion. Liz Bennet writes for a women’s magazine, Jane Bennet is a yoga instructor, Kitty and Lydia are CrossFit fiends, and Darcy and Bingley are doctors. The characters and setup take directly from the original, but once Sittenfeld has the stage laid, Eligible diverges to tackle issues like financial independence, hate sex, feminism, reality shows, and gender identity. Though the novel more or less ends up where its predecessor does (albeit with a surging degree of absurdity toward the end), the points of tension in the plot differ. To point out where exactly those differences are would require me to divulge the plot of Eligible, which I won’t do because once you take away its few twists there is little left to enjoy.
In defense of my snobbishness, I’m not necessarily an Austen purist. This past February, I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the big screen, which makes surprisingly clever digs at the original as well as the 1995 BBC and the 2005 Joe Wright adaptations, and I’ve laughed during the miniseries Lost in Austen and the Bollywood-style Bride and Prejudice. I adored the web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which is one of the most creative and engaging P&P variations I’ve ever seen. While I’m at it, You’ve Got Mail is great too.
Perhaps Eligible fails through the medium. While most of the well-received P&P adaptations are via film and television, a retelling by book is riskier. Sittenfeld sets her prose in direct comparison to Austen’s subtle and perfect dialogue, and Eligible suffers for it. Whereas one of the chief joys of reading Pride and Prejudice comes from watching Elizabeth guess and misread the secret motivations of the other characters, Sittenfeld’s cast is blunt, their dialogue stilted and uninspired. The occasional exception to the blandness is Mr. Bennet, who gets a good zinger in now and then, as in his response to the Bennet women’s laughing at the “crybaby” lead of a reality show akin to The Bachelor:
“I don’t suppose that any of you can appreciate the terror a man might feel being so outnumbered,” Mr. Bennet said. “I often weep, and there are only six of you.”
Even with some help from Mr. Bennet, Eligible falls far short of P&P for laughs. While Austen’s Lizzie is full of wit, Sittenfeld’s Liz is chronically weary of trying to save the Bennets from financial ruin and doesn’t have much to offer in sparing matches with Darcy or Caroline Bingley. The mild sexual tension between Darcy and Liz may be a reason some will read and like Eligible, but their love story unfolds like a tawdry romance with the porn edited out. Darcy’s abs are even “sculpted,” if this gives you an idea.
For fans of P&P, there is little here that isn’t done better in other versions. Sadly, rather than giving us a marriage of clever homage and bold reimagining, Eligible ends up settling for cheeky, soap-opera imitation.