Published by Random House
Publication date: April 19th 2016
In case you weren’t aware or hadn’t noticed the subtitle, Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel Eligible is a retelling of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice. If you’re a purist about your classics, then you probably ought to stop reading now, pour yourself a glass of sherry and go back to your needlework by candlelight. If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for everything that makes modern America train-wreck fascinating then read on because this novel has got you covered.
Eligible could have been a straightforward update with each character the same as the original except dressed in athleisure wear and tapping a iPad. Instead, Sittenfeld goes beyond the basics and layers on a contemporary sensibility that makes the novel as horrifying as it is hilarious. Yes, the storylines are similar, but now Jane and Elizabeth (Liz) are entering their forties, unmarried and not particularly interested in being married. They live in NYC while the rest of the family is in Cincinnati. The remaining sisters still live at home despite being in their twenties and none shows any interest in getting a job. Mrs. Bennet’s delusions of grandeur are intact and Mr. Bennet is as put-upon as he ever was. In this way, Sittenfeld shows no interest in changing her characters. There is no attempt to modify Mrs. Bennet’s social climbing mania, Mary’s superior attitude, Bingley’s goofy charm or Darcy’s condescension. What there is is Kitty and Lydia with all of twenty-first century technology at their disposal so every moment is selfies, Crossfit workouts, texting, and an appalling lack of manners and self-restraint.
Sittenfeld even goes so far as to format Eligible for today’s reader—chapters are no more than a page or two, which makes for scrolling-style reading and a pace that moves like TMZ updates. All in all, each and every character is scrutinized in the novel and each rings as absolutely true now as they did then. What was a socially inept and self-important parson in the 1800s is now a wealthy software titan somewhere on the Aspberger spectrum. What this means is that there are parts of Eligible that are painfully un-PC, but did you really expect Mrs. Bennet to transform into anything other than a foolish, narrow-minded bigot? Because she can’t and Sittenfeld goes all-in in bringing her into the 21st century, even when it must have been painful to write. Even the high-minded, Liz, who’s a journalist now, has her prejudices, as noted when she sees a high school classmate in a restaurant with her four children
How was this mathematically possible? And wasn’t there, in Vanessa’s avid reproduction, something unseemly, some announcement of narcissism or aggression?
All in all, Sittenfeld does a marvelous job at taking what was a lighthearted reflection of its times and mirroring it back at us now. Is it embarrassing? Yes. Cringe worthy? Yes. Unrealistic? Sadly, no. Entertaining and a novel meant to be read in one sitting with a cocktail? Absolutely. As the indomitable Mrs. Bennet says, in what may be the culturally defining moment of Eligible, when confronted about telling a lie on reality television
“Oh, for heaven’s sake… That doesn’t matter.”