*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers. Proceed with appropriate caution.
I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings. So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.
I ended up feeling very divided about the book. Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work. The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another. The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister. One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise! The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia. So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.
But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow. Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show. The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter. Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines. And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style. It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.
I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version. True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat. But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character. In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love. This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character. In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family. Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them. I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?
Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff. The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.
Have you read Eligible? Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?