At a certain point, you’d think there was enough Jane Austen out there, what with the books she wrote, the many movie adaptations of said books, the museum exhibitions, the clothing lines, the festivals, the souvenirs, and the quasi-spinoff novels like Austenland and The Jane Austen Book Club (which were speedily adapted into movies). So why would Curtis Sittenfeld, a highly successful novelist herself, take a swing at Austen? It’s a fair question, answered by a simple fact: they asked her to.
Eligible, Sittenfeld’s “modern retelling” of Pride and Prejudice, is out this week. It’s the fourth release of the six-book Austen Project, which are commissioned modern reinterpretations of Austen’s books; previous iterations are Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Northhanger Abbey by Val McDermid, and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I’d somehow missed that before reading Eligible, which meant I found Sittenfeld’s decision to take on Austen puzzling at first glance—but only slightly so. It seemed to fit with her leanings: after success with the surprisingly dark Prep and The Man of My Dreams, she’d turned to fictionalized reality with American Wife, her take on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush.
Adapting Laura Bush’s life and adapting Jane Austen’s fiction are two different things, of course, but both American Wife and Eligible face automatic comparisons that entirely new works don’t generate. Sittenfeld has acknowledged the similarity between the two books, telling NPR’s Weekend Edition, “There’s almost an implicit dialogue between me and the reader where I’m saying, ‘I know you know this, and you know I know you know, but there still will be surprises.’ In some ways I’ll fulfill your expectations, and in some ways I’ll defy them.”
The result in Eligible is such a natural extension of Pride and Prejudice it’s almost unsettling to read. Liz’s family is living off their dwindling wealth in Cincinnati, her sisters too old to be loafing around the house with their parents without jobs; Kitty and Lydia are obsessed with CrossFit, and Mary lives a life of secrecy, which means her whole family thinks she’s gay. Liz (Lizzy to her family) and Jane have moved to New York City, where Liz works as a magazine writer for what essentially sounds like Elle and is involved with a longtime friend/lover who has an understanding with his wife, and Jane is a yoga instructor who is trying IVF. This is a neat translation of the family from P&P, in which Kitty and Lydia were younger but equally aimless, Mary was a misunderstood weirdo, and Liz and Jane were considered ancient for the marriage market (Sittenfeld has aged up all her characters to account for how strange it is that three young women in their twenties—and one of them 30—would all be living in their childhood home; for instance, Liz has been moved from 20 to 38).
The older Bennet sisters, while slightly more successful than their younger siblings, are still not great with money, and the family’s general lack of drive seems, in Sittenfeld’s rendition of Austen’s story, to be less the result of having too many unmarried daughters and more due to their close-mindedness about the realities of the modern world. In Austen’s original text, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were simply behind the times; now, being behind the times involves a certain amount of implicit bigotry, and the two parents in Sittenfeld’s adaption voice opinions that are uncomfortable but mostly tolerated by those around them. (“If only you’d been born a century ago, you could have been one of Barnum’s bearded ladies,” Mr. Bennet remarks to a character who is revealed to be a transgender woman; “The black man?” Mrs. Bennet asks when another acquaintance of the family is mentioned by name.) Liz is fully aware of the faults of her family members, and yet is willingly drawn back to help them them after Mr. Bennet has sudden heart surgery.
You know the rest of the story—Liz meets Darcy and they loathe each other yet fall in love, Jane and Bingley fall in love and then separate over a misunderstanding, Cousin Willie ends up with Charlotte—and yet that’s part of the drive to get through this one: it’s a puzzle, and a successfully engaging one, to see how Sittenfeld will update this world we know so well. Her title comes from the name of the Bachelor-esque reality show that her Chip Bingley starred on, before he returned to Cincinnati to work as a doctor in the ER, at the same hospital as his good friend Darcy.
The rest of the characters are around too: Chip’s sister Caroline, Jasper, Cousin Willie, Charlotte, but each has their own almost too-perfect place in this oh-so-familiar world. Sittenfeld hasn’t done what others might have to update Austen’s text, i.e. make it significantly more sexually explicit. She also, notably, hasn’t deviated from the short chapter structure, which keeps the touch impressively light, and makes Eligible feel at its core deeply Austen-esque—despite her characters searching for things on Google and texting each other using “u” for “you”
By the end, Liz has an important meeting with a Gloria Steinem figure (right down to the husband she married late in life who died suddenly), not long before the titular reality show finally exerts the pressure you want it to throughout the previous plot. You can tear through the book waiting to see how it all ends without quite realizing what Sittenfeld’s done: update an exploration of how people can be so stubborn as to not see themselves into an exploration of the changing tides of American society, and those who can’t keep up.
It’s not as if Austen’s book didn’t do this. She explored—as any person who read the book in college or even high school knows—themes that range from what the purpose of marriage and partnership are to how one’s status in the social hierarchy affects how they live their lives. Those ideas are present in Eligible, and heightened to a very specific point. Being threatened by the future in rapidly evolving contemporary America is different than being threatened by the future while entrenched in the longstanding and seemingly immutable British class system of the 1800s.
Many of Sittenfeld’s characters, even excluding the Bennet family, seem at least at first more comfortable in the distant or even recent past—at times when they were more impressive for a variety of reasons (their race being white, or their gender being male, or their wealth being considerable). It’s a longing for stasis that’s no longer acceptable. You’d hardly assume one needed to learn that from a story that’s already been told a thousand times—but while perhaps the education here is not significant, it doesn’t hurt, and it certainly isn’t any less entertaining, particularly when there’s some disquietingly real reality television drama to watch unfold, right down to the Chris Harrison facsimile.
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