I absolutely loved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I first read it as a teenager, and even now as an adult, having re-read it multiple times, I still rate it as the best—not “one of the best” but unequivocally “the best”—book I have read. This is why when I heard of the new book, Eligible, described as a contemporary take on the beloved Jane Austen classic, I was intrigued. The author, Curtis Sittenfeld, was a young, upcoming novelist who had already written a few books, was well respected, and generally considered as one of the promising literary stars of the new generation. While it is always difficult to appease die-hard fans of any book—I found the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice a decent attempt but the recent Keira Knightley movie quite bad, even though it got good reviews—the promise of reliving my favorite Pride and Prejudice characters seemed too good to pass up on.
So I went ahead with reading Eligible. For the most part, I found it a fun and entertaining read. There is still the Bennet family with five unmarried sisters, who their mother, Mrs. Bennet, is desperately trying to find matches for. They live in Cincinnati, and while the three younger sisters still live at home, the older two, Jane and Elizabeth, live in New York where they have their own lives and careers. A sudden heart attack suffered by their father brings them back home for a visit, and this is how they get a chance to meet Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, the eventual love interests of Jane and Elizabeth respectively. Both are doctors, so deemed as great “catches” by Mrs. Bennet, although Darcy soon falls out of favor by seeming to be snooty and obnoxious, as in the original. Bingley, on the other hand, is, in addition to being a doctor, a reality TV star, just coming off the sets of a Bachelor-type show called Eligible (which is where the name of the book comes from). Jane, meanwhile, is almost 40 and is trying to have a baby using artificial insemination through an anonymous sperm donor. Elizabeth, or Liz as she is called, is a fairly successful magazine writer who has been having an affair with a married man for many years and is not terribly happy with that relationship. Darcy, as in the original, is fabulously wealthy, exceptionally smart, and extremely handsome—he is a neurosurgeon, went to Stanford, has a Ph.D., and has a sprawling estate called “Pemberly” in Atherton, the priciest location in the already pricey Bay Area. In short, apart from his perceived arrogance and pride, he is perfection personified!
Rounding off the main characters from the original are Liz’s closest friend Charlotte, who gets paired off with Liz’s cousin Willie, a highly successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who was first interested in Liz and gets together with Charlotte only on the rebound; Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister, who elopes and gets married to a transgender man, Ham (short for Hamilton), who Mrs. Bennet does not accept at first but eventually comes around to thanks to some “neurological” talk from Darcy; Kitty, the second-youngest Bennet sister, who eventually joins a beauty school (thanks to Liz’s encouragement), and starts going out with a black man, which is another nail in the coffin for the biased Mrs. Bennet; Mary, the middle sister, who is as scholarly and uninteresting as in the original; Kathy de Bourgh, who is now a famous feminist celebrity that Liz interviews, rather than Darcy’s obnoxious aunt who want to stop him getting together with Liz; and finally, Bingley’s sister, Caroline Bingley, who continues to be the thorn on Liz’s side and wants Darcy for herself.
Admittedly, the plot line does sound ludicrous and die-hard fans of the book like me would likely cringe at this mutilation of their beloved characters. But surprisingly, Curtis Sittenfeld is able to pull it off for the most part, keeping in mind that Eligible is not meant to be a serious book but instead a fun and light-hearted take of the storyline of Pride and Prejudice set in current times. It is a fast-paced, easy read, with short chapters, some of which are no longer than a page or even a few paragraphs. The story moves on briskly, and some of the contemporary touches are quite witty, such as Kitty and Lydia being into CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets, the fumigation of the Bennet home because of an infestation of spiders, the over-shopping and hoarding tendency of Mrs. Bennet which requires Liz to eventually move all her stuff into a portable storage truck in order to sell the house, Jane’s artificial insemination through an anonymous sperm donor which actually results in her getting pregnant and having a baby, and the introduction of not just gay but also transgender characters into the storyline.
At the same time, some parts of the story just don’t work. For example, the whole reality TV aspect of the book is hard to take seriously—and it’s not just that Bingley recently came off from acting in a Bachelor-like show, he also returns for a sequel, and his eventual wedding to Jane, with family and friends, is included in the TV show, broadcast live on television! Then there is Mr. Darcy. While he was a terrific “catch” in Pride and Prejudice with his large estate and income, it was not at all unbelievable—it was quite common in the Victorian days for wealthy families to have large estates and for the scions of those families to be highly sought after for marriage. However, in Eligible, not only is Darcy impossibly wealthy (an estate in Atherton), but he is also the smartest person in the noblest profession (Stanford educated neurosurgeon), he is single (he has no time for girlfriends as he is so busy doing surgery on people’s brains), and of course, he is extremely good-looking! It’s hard to take a book seriously in which the “hero” is so perfect—in every possible way. Then there is the manner in which Liz and Darcy first get together—they have “hate sex” initiated by Liz. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned romance? Are people now so driven by hormones that the first thing they do at even the slightest hint of interest or attraction is sleep together, and are our contemporary books and movies simply capturing that?
For those of us who love our classics, we need to be prepared for the influx of modern retellings like Eligible as they are getting more common. (While Pride and Prejudice is a favorite, popular classics that are being “retold” in current or upcoming books are Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.) It would help to have the original books handy so they can “wash off” the experiences of these retellings, if required. I have to go back and re-read Pride and Prejudice to let it works its magic and charm on me again.
Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: April 2016
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.