Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible” is a top-drawer homage to Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” relocated to the 21st century.
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 492 pp., $28
Let the swooning and the (ladylike) epithets begin: Contemporary American novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (“American Wife,” “Sisterland,” “Prep”) has rewritten Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” And, in my (ladylike) opinion, done a bang-up job of it.
To avoid the flying teacakes, let’s back up just a hair here: Sittenfeld was approached with the task of writing a “modern retelling” of Austen’s classic as part of The Austen Project, through the British publisher HarperCollins. Hers is the fourth of the series — following Joanna Trollope’s “Sense & Sensibility,” Val McDermid’s “Northanger Abbey” and Alexander McCall Smith’s “Emma” — and the first to appear with its very own title, not Austen’s.
That title refers, as inevitably it must in a 21st-century novel of manners, to a reality television show (it’s a retitled “The Bachelor”) where handsome Chip Bingley, a physician whose Pennsylvania family had “made their fortune in plumbing fixtures,” has made it clear that he is in want of a wife. Upon his post-show arrival in Cincinnati, where Mr. and Mrs. Bennet reside in a cluttered, sprawling Tudor with three of their five unmarried daughters, marital scheming begins — which of course soon includes Chip’s dashing chum, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Sittenfeld, in keeping the familiar tale believable, has taken some necessary liberties. Jane and Liz, the two oldest Bennet daughters, are now nearing 40 (the age at which modern mothers despair of their girls being “settled”) and live away from home in New York, where serene Jane works as a yoga instructor and spirited Liz as a magazine writer. Of the remaining daughters (in their 20s, and living with their parents), reclusive Mary is at work on her third online master’s degree, and silly Kitty and Lydia are obsessed not with officers of a visiting regiment but with fellow CrossFit devotees at the local gym.
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The family reunites after Mr. Bennet undergoes emergency bypass surgery, and Liz finds herself, as is her wont, trying to solve everyone’s problems. Among them: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are broke, due in part to Mrs. Bennet’s shopping addiction; Jane is undergoing IVF treatments in the hope of becoming pregnant; and Liz’s friend Charlotte Lucas finds herself drawn to Liz’s geeky California cousin Willie, a multimillionaire now running “his third or fourth software development startup.”
Meanwhile, Liz tries to manage her attraction to Darcy, who looks “like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.” They have loads of ST (sexual tension, in Liz and Charlotte’s shorthand), but a knack for misunderstanding each other.
If you know Austen’s original well, it’s a kick to spot the parallels (Lady Catherine de Bourgh here, for example, becomes Kathy de Bourgh, a Gloria Steinem-like feminist whom Liz interviews for the magazine). But you don’t need to have read classic literature to know that Sittenfeld’s knack for characterization and snappy dialogue — and her understanding of the mysteries of love — is a treat, and that her final act, in which all the characters are united on the set of “Eligible,” is pure screwball joy. (You’ll learn, if you didn’t know already, what the term “Frankenbiting” means. It’s not something Austen could ever have imagined.)
Is it Austen? No. Is it fun? Oh, yes. In fact, “Eligible” is such fun that I can imagine it might lead a few new readers to Jane Austen. Which seems, in a topsy-turvy way, quite appropriate.