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Merle

Merle

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice - Curtis Sittenfeld

I am not the biggest fan of Jane Austen, but couldn’t resist this modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice from an acclaimed author. How do you take a plot from 1813 – driven by inheritance drama and women’s need to marry for financial security and social respectability – and use it to comment on the modern world?

If this book is an indication, the answer is: you don’t. But reactions will come down to expectations. If you’re looking for an addictive, cotton-candy read, you can stop here, because this is your book. It’s fast reading, consisting of nearly 200 brief chapters; I nearly always wanted to read one more. And even where, on their own, Sittenfeld’s plot and characters might not grab the reader’s attention, curiosity about her adaptation of Austen kept me going. So if you’re just looking for a fun beach read, don’t let me discourage you.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

But as an adaptation, this is an awkward one. The updating is inconsistent. Sometimes it's done well: Wickham’s past crimes, for instance, have nothing to do with inheritance or seduction, but are chosen to be repulsive to a modern audience. Sometimes it's all over the place: in places the romantic relationships are updated to 2013 – the couples have sex before they’re even sure how much they like each other – but in places they're hopelessly outdated – most of the couples marry just as fast as they did in 1813, with proposals made and accepted the moment the lovers admit to having feelings for one another. Sorry, that’s not how modern relationships work. Meanwhile, there are weird contortions in service of the plot, such as Mr. Bennet’s lack of health insurance (as a 60-something rich person?).

Other aspects feel forced and awkward. Rather than creating drama through inheritance law, Sittenfeld makes the Bennet parents nearly bankrupt due to medical bills and excessive spending. As a result, the parents have to downsize, and their adult daughters (most of whom were accustomed to mooching from their parents) have to get jobs. So… they do. The end. This rather dull plotline takes up a lot of page time, without twists or payoff (unless the fact that a new son-in-law doesn’t swoop in to pay all their bills is supposed to be a surprise. It sort of is, but still doesn’t justify making the sale of the house the book’s main plot).

Still, there’s no doubt the book is trying to say something about modern life. It’s full of “issues”: one character has anorexia, another a shopping addiction, though neither is dealt with in any way. Black and transgender characters are introduced, then not developed at all beyond their minority status. If a light beach read can inspire readers to be more sensitive toward others, that’s a wonderful thing, but simply dumping a lecture into the text is distracting. Here’s Liz after a bit of online research: “she knew to be embarrassed for having asked Mary if [the transgender character] had a fake penis; it was, apparently, no less rude to speculate about the genitals of a transgender person than about those of a person who was nontransgender, or cisgender.”

Yet however uninspired the observations of modern life, Sittenfeld never misses an opportunity to remind us that it’s 2013! It’s Cincinnati! This story is set in Cincinnati in 2013! I generally appreciate specificity in books, but listing every street in Liz’s jogging route, having the characters talk endlessly about the merits, disadvantages and tourist sites of Cincinnati, and including sentences along the lines of “Liz had first been made aware of her older sister’s exceptional goodness in 1982, when Jane was in second grade and Liz in first,” hammer on the setting to the point of distraction. The semi-literate text messages don’t help either.

On to the characters. Sittenfeld does a decent job keeping the secondary cast in line with their original personalities. Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm and Mrs. Bennet’s flightiness are certainly in evidence. The Bennet sisters are tougher, since they’re aged up significantly. The original Mary was a socially awkward teen with an overly high opinion of herself, not an uncommon teenage phase; Sittenfeld’s version is an unpleasant 30-year-old who lives holed up in her childhood bedroom taking online courses (she’s also asexual; apparently, if you’re not interested in romance, you can hope for nothing more rewarding in life than weeknight bowling. Yikes). Bingley is mostly a caricature who cries too much, while Jane’s only apparent trait is placidity – and Sittenfeld never convinced me that she would willingly sell her wedding to a reality TV show.

As for our protagonist, Liz is relatable, in that she’s the most sensible Bennet, but as an adaptation of one of English literature’s most popular and admired heroines, she falls flat. There’s not much to admire or interest the reader in this version: she’s on the tail end of a two-year affair with a married douchebag, for whom she’s carried a torch her entire adult life (Liz is 38). She’s worked the same job, as a magazine writer, for more than a decade, but apparently has no ambition, and she seems attached to her family less by affection than a desire to manage them. Her romance with Darcy is as uninspired as Liz herself; the book spends far more time on selling the Bennet home than on developing their interactions, and it’s hard to see any chemistry or much reason to root for this couple. Nor does either experience much growth or change.

(One element I did like: Liz doesn’t want kids, and doesn’t change her mind! Darcy is of the same opinion. And he’s right: don’t call deciding not to reproduce “selfish”; if you want to be selfless, adopt a hard-to-place foster kid.)

To sum up, then: this is fluffy beach reading, and as such it’s perfectly fine. But the attempt to use Pride and Prejudice to say something meaningful about modern America falls as flat as the attempt to engage readers’ emotions in this dull recreation of a famous romance. You can skip this one.