Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
This version of the Bennet family and Mr. Darcy is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.
Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.
Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . . And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.
This was, hands down, my least favorite version of Pride and Prejudice I have ever encountered. However, like so many books I’ve read in 2017, I found that when I just stopped expecting it to be P&P, I actually rather enjoyed it.
My biggest issue with Eligible was with Sittenfeld’s interpretation of the characters. While definitely similar to their original versions, they all seemed so mean-spirited. While this was maybe something expected in characters like Lydia or Darcy, there is something … discomforting about a mean Mary. Mrs. Bennett is a great example. In Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennett is selfish and ridiculous, but she seems to genuinely care for her daughters, especially Lydia and Jane. She is outspokenly proud of Jane, and expects that her beauty will lead her to make a good match any day now. But Eligible’s Mrs. Bennett is apathetic toward her daughters when not downright mean to them, and she is vocally disappointed in Jane. When Bingley leaves, instead of being shocked and taking it as a personal affront to her family, she blames it on her daughter who wasn’t willing to chase him to LA. While certainly in the spirit of Austen’s character, I couldn’t get past how ill-natured she was, in addition to uninformed. Even characters like Charlotte, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Collins came off unkind and even cruel. Even Georgiana comes right out and says she doesn’t like Caroline. WHAT?
And Sittenfeld holds no romantic views of our heroines. Jane is barely making it by in New York City, barely paying her rent as Liz pays for her in-vitro fertilization. Liz is crass and rude. They both fit right in with Lydia and Kitty, shouting profanities at the top of their lungs in the company of strangers. I don’t know, when I read Pride and Prejudice I like that Jane and Elizabeth are elegant and well-mannered, even though their family isn’t.
With all of these negative characterizations of beloved and silly characters alike, I was beyond disappointed with how not shocking Mr. Whickham was. Without giving anything away it’s hard to be more specific, but his past behavior revealed in Darcy’s letter was bad, but not even close to the worst thing I could think of a college fraternity brother doing. I was thinking Brock Turner, and I got … minor vandalism. ??? And his elopement with Lydia was a triumphant moment rather than the worst imaginable news. I don’t know, that was just disappointing to me.
I also didn’t really care for the speed with which Liz came around to Darcy. In Pride and Prejudice it takes her months to come to terms with the letter, and even longer after that to realize she might be able to enjoy his company. In Eligible she’s starting to think romantically about him only hours after rejecting him. Which, honestly, made sense, because she never really disliked him in Eligible as much as she thought she did.
So, like I said, not my favorite version. I think I’ll stick with the Lizzy Bennett Diaries for my 21st century interpretation.
But, again, once I stopped thinking about it as a Pride and Prejudice re-telling, I started to enjoy it a lot more. It’s a well written story, and Liz and Darcy have good chemistry. At least, Settenfeld informs me they do. The ST is frequently mentioned at being high. And while the chapters were annoyingly short (one paragraph, seriously?), the book moved quickly. And, when it comes down to it, the hate-to-love story is timeless, and always good to read. It’s hard to screw up Jane Austen, even when it’s barely Jane Austen.