Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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If you're looking for an absorbing update to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, then Eligible may seem like a solution. Sadly, it's a half-realized revamp.

To begin, If you're a Jane Austen purist who could never imagine any of her heroines having sex, then you should probably pass on Curtis Sittenfeld's depiction of these classic characters.

Because Liz and Darcy have sex. Hate sex. A lot of hate sex.

I was not impressed with the concept of hate sex. I just don't see Liz Bennett, from any time period, participating in something so crass. Lydia or Kitty having hate sex, I could accept, but Liz?

The events leading up to the first hate sex encounter left me harshly judging Liz as well. She consumes two glasses of wine, drives home, and then proceeds to go jogging. She bumps into Darcy and immediately reveals all these family secrets, presumably because the alcohol loosens her tongue. So she's okay to drive home, but she can't operate her own mouth?

Another issue with introducing sex to the world of Austen is simultaneously introducing the awkward writing that often accompanies sexual references and innuendo. There's some truly stilted dialogue:

"Jasper looked intently at Liz. 'You're not banging Darcy, are you?'

'Are you kidding?'

'I could swear he was giving off a territorial vibe.'"

Jasper Wick is one-half of the re-imagining of George Wickham and he's a true cad. Within Sittenfeld's world, though, Jasper and Liz have been carrying on a long-term affair. Jasper's indifference to Liz is easy to spot, so his sudden concern sounds false and even worse with such juvenile language.

Then there's the second half of George Wickham: Hamilton (Ham) Ryan, who elopes with Lydia. The treatment of the scandal surrounding this elopement actually offends me. Ham is a good person who truly loves Lydia. When they elope, Mrs. Bennett is devastated by the marriage because of one secret revealed about Ham.

In the original story George Wickham cares little for Lydia and the scandal revolves around an unmarried gentleman's daughter running off with a young man. The act of the elopement is the scandal and the marriage actually restores family honor.

In both versions of the story, the vacuous Mrs. Bennett reacts hysterically to the news of Lydia's poor decision. But in this modern version, the prejudice this clueless woman continues to hold towards Ham for her perception of his malady of character leaves me cold. While any version of Mrs. Bennett would not be expected to be a model of open-mindedness, her hateful refusal to accept Ham into her family makes her malady of character much more vile than I think Austen ever intended. Mrs. Bennett should be clueless, not heinously repugnant.

Sittenfeld hit the mark describing Mrs. Bennett much better earlier in the story. She assigns Mrs. Bennett the mindless nightly routine of flipping through catalogs as she pretends to not watch television.

“Just as some people enjoy knitting in front of the television, Mrs. Bennett was fond of perusing housewares catalogs; indeed, the sound of pages turning, that quick flap when no item caught her eye and the pauses when something did, the occasional businesslike lick of the index finger, was one of the essential sounds of LIz’s childhood. This habit was also, apparently, what allowed Mrs. Bennett to maintain a belief that she had not actually ‘watched’ a wide variety of shows even though she had been in the room for the duration of entire episodes and, in some cases, entire seasons.”

These flaws didn't prevent me from enjoying other aspects of this story. Sittenfeld's characterization of most of the other minor characters held spot-on commentary about our times.

Kitty and Lydia take on every Millennial stereotype. Their inability to filter anything and continuously overshare is reinforced through every interaction they have.

And Mr. Bennett's bad manners appear as well. He's once again a well-educated man who made a poor marriage choice. After years of suffering through Mrs. Bennett's drama queen antics, he has learned to deliver his blunt opinion directly.

“‘Fred!’ the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennett replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

With the contemporary context, this story had a few feminist strong points.

Liz doesn't want children. Thank you for the nod that being a woman does not revolve around motherhood. Some women prefer the child-free life.

And within the same story, other women are pursuing becoming pregnant and choosing to have children. I like how Sittenfeld tries to represent a variety of types of modern woman.

Liz works for Mascara, a fashion magazine with substance. I can hardly keep a straight face typing that oxymoron. Liz does land the assignment of a lifetime when she gets a face-to-face interview with legendary feminist icon Kathy de Bourgh. What genius! Casting the original marriage meddler as a feminist.

“As they sat, Kathy de Bourgh smiled and said, ‘Now that we’ve both apologized within the first thirty seconds of our conversation about women and power, shall we begin?’”

While this quick read has its moments, I can't say that I'd recommend it to most people. I preferred the humor and social commentary in Bridget Jones's Diary.

Of course, if you're a die-hard Jane Austen fan who reads every adaptation of her works, then this story won't be the worst version of Pride and Prejudice you've ever read either.

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