Eligible

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House, fiction

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is part of the Austen Project, which pairs “six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s complete six works”, as described on its Facebook page, facebook.com/austenproject.

Sittenfeld, an American author of bestsellers like Prep and American Wife, takes on Pride And Prejudice, often cited as Austen’s most popular work.

It might seem foolhardy to mess with a good thing, especially a classic as well-loved as Pride And Prejudice. Part of what interested me about the book was the idea of contemporary authors willingly offering themselves up to be destroyed by fans and casual readers alike in being compared with a popular writer whose reputation has remained solid over the centuries.

Of course, there are the Austen haters, or those who are simply ambivalent, but the likelihood of those readers finding your update worth reading seems like a shot in the dark.

In any case, it seems best to get it out of the way: I love reading Austen’s novels, have reread them several times, and find Sittenfeld’s update to be woefully inadequate both as a rework of the original and as a novel on its own terms.

str2_subaeligible_coverIn Eligible, Sittenfeld has relocated the Bennets to Cincinnati in the United States and turned them into an all-American wealthy WASP family. Depth has been sacrificed for a breezy yet curiously tedious pace and tone that rearranges all the characters from Austen’s original like it’s Barbie-and-Ken playtime for the kids.

The book is set circa 2013, and Elizabeth (Liz) and Jane Bennet, now a women’s magazine writer and a yoga teacher respectively, return home to Cincinnati from their adult lives in New York after their father has a heart attack.

Back home, we meet Mr and Mrs Bennet, as well as Mary, Kitty and Lydia, and the decaying Tudor family mansion that they all live in.

Due to Mr Bennet’s ineptness at both working for a living and managing his finances (he inherited his wealth) and Mrs Bennet’s profligacy, the house will soon be lost to the family, to no great despair to anyone but the mother, it appears.

Bingley now has an all-American fratboy name, Chip, and is the scion of a wealthy family who “had made their fortune in plumbing fixtures”, and who participates in a reality TV show called Eligible.

Through the reworking of Austen’s original spare yet absorbing plot into a series of ludicrous events, this reality show ends up involving the entire Bennet family.

Darcy, meanwhile, is now a rich neurosurgeon who trades barbs with Liz in the most banal of ways. There is nothing there to suggest intelligence on his part; it’s simply an exchange of insults that progresses to a series of “hate sex” encounters that are desperately lacking in heat, and then culminates, unbelievably, in love and happily-ever-after.

Austen dared not insult her readers in this manner; she offered hope, and perhaps wish fulfilment, and both of those could rightly be criticised, but at least she never assumed that her readers were unintelligent.

In what is an “update” with many changes made in apparently random fashion just to serve Sittenfeld’s idea of a reworked plot, Charlotte Lucas is now not only heading towards old-maid purgatory but is headed there because she is fat, so of course she gets (and is satisfied with) the abominable Mr Collins, who is now (predictably) a rich Silicon Valley techbro lacking basic human decency.

Mary is still plain and caricatured as utterly unlikable – Liz ungenerously thinks of Mary as an example of how easy it was to be “unattractive and unpleasant” – and it’s good to know that from Austen’s time to ours, a woman’s greatest insult to herself and others is to not care about how she looks.

Curtis Photo: npr.org

That Mary as a character is punished in both Austen and Sittenfeld’s narratives by possessing no redeeming characteristics is distressing, though to Sittenfeld’s credit Mary gets a brief two-page chapter to herself towards the end that is better than the entire book that came before it.

As for the other sisters, Kitty and Lydia, they are made to inexplicably fall in love with a black man and a transgender person respectively, but Sittenfeld fails to make it plausible to the reader how Kitty and Lydia might love outside of the scope of their rich, white heterosexual world.

Considering that Lydia is always mocking unfeminine Mary for being a lesbian, this development seems like a blatant attempt to add “diversity” to the story and rescue it from accusations of solipsism in its otherwise tedious depiction of upper-class white American problems.

This is particularly the case since Ham, Lydia’s partner, is one-half of the original Wickham from Pride And Prejudice (Sitten-feld has split the characters into two, the other, “evil”, half of Wickham recharacterised as Jasper, Liz’s duplicitous married lover).

That Ham is the “good” version of Wickham doesn’t negate the undertones of duplicity that is explored through Ham’s identity, often coded as a “dual” identity through the transphobic gaze of most members of the Bennet family, including Liz, who prides herself on being open but who scrutinises Ham’s goatee and bare chest for traces of Ham’s “previous” gender. It is clumsily done and quite simply appalling.

All in all, I feel that Eligible is a mediocre attempt at an Austen update, and one that fails to serve any particular purpose in terms of either deepening or expanding upon the original’s far superior plot, characterisation and themes. If you asked me for a reason to read this book, I would be hard-pressed to come up with one.