Mr Bennet has had a heart attack so Lizzy and her elder sister Jane return to the family home in Cincinnati. There she finds her younger sisters caught up in a Crossfit health craze, but doing little to provide for themselves. Her middle sister Mary is doing yet another degree, and again failing to work in the process. As for Lizzy's mother, it would appear she is busy trying to match make Jane with Chip Bingley, Doctor and star of Eligible, a reality TV series. But with Chip comes his best friend Darcy. A man Lizzy can't help but loathe....
Eligible is the latest instalment in Borough Press' The Austen Project, which sees each of Jane Austen's novels reimagined in the modern day by a litany of well known and well respected novelists. This time it's the turn of Pride and Prejudice which has emerged as Eligible under the pen of Curtis Sittenfeld.
Lots of things are different in the novel. Lizzy and Jane are older and absent from the family home, though both still have their rent paid for by Mr Bennet. Lady Catherine De Bourgh for example is now a rather pleasant aged feminist, rather than the snobby harridan in the original. George Wickham has a different name and role in the story and there are new characters, for example Ham, who take over pivotal roles in the narrative. There are some things that haven't changed. The younger Bennet sisters are highly annoying, spoilt and often down-right rude. Mrs Bennet is still highly strung, but now exhibits not so latent racist, bigoted views with undercurrents of anti-Semitism and a side helping of shopping addiction. She is still obsessed with getting her daughters married off. Mr Bennet is still slightly absent and amuses himself with the foibles of his wife and children, and seemingly abdicates responsibility for finances to the detriment of the family.
I had issues with the book. I was unsure at first if I was enjoying it. I found Lizzy to be annoying, more so than in Pride and Prejudice (in which she tends to be more sanctimonious than annoying) for example and Willie Collins not nearly as sycophantic and obsequious as the original Mr Collins and therefore a little harder to dislike and I did spend some time wondering how the story was going to retain the key points of the original when it appeared to be deviating. Despite being aware of how the story would play out the book seems to draw you in, compelling you to read despite being aware of the origins of the story and making the inevitable comparisons. I read 300 pages in one evening (don't be phased by its 510 pages for it is surprisingly easy to read), so drawn in by the story was I, helped by the short chapters that lend themselves to the justification of 'just one more...' I realised that I was enjoying the novel, wrapped up in the modern day lives of the Bennets of Cincinnati. It was interesting to see how Curtis Sittenfeld would make all the storyline of Pride and Prejudice fit into the modern day and the scenario she had opened with. It is a novel that doesn't take itself too seriously and it would appear that the author had fun imagining the Bennets in the 21st Century.
There are inevitably going to be comparisons with the original. Pride and Prejudice is a classic for many reasons. It was an insight into the social norms and idiosyncrasies of the time, of societal standings and ridiculing the prejudices and norms of the time. In some instances Eligible does the same, dealing as it does racial and sexual issues, with the invasion of reality TV, of the trashy television, the desire for publicity and the media's intrusion into our daily lives. It is done perhaps with a tongue more firmly in cheek and a little more modern comedy, though Jane Austen was not adverse to wit in her novels.
This is my first encounter with Curtis Sittenfeld's novels. I'm now keen to see what her other novels contain.