Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is a remarkably entertaining read that I enjoyed very much!
This novel is part of a broader series called The Austen Project, in which contemporary authors rework and rewrite some of Jane Austen’s most popular works. Sittenfeld’s story Eligible adapts the plot of Pride and Prejudice and it is an incredibly unique and witty retelling of a much-lauded classic.
I should start my review by saying that Pride and Prejudice is not my favourite Austen novel. Although I definitely love the story itself, I never was able to fully connect to the characters because I find Austen’s writing style in Pride and Prejudice to be too unemotional and almost scientific. That being said, I really love Austen’s novels Emma and (my personal favourite) Persuasion, and so I think that I just have a mental block toward Pride and Prejudice because I have seen it adapted into films so many times and yet feel that the actual text is devoid of much of the feeling and sentiment ascribed to it in popular culture. However, there is no doubt that Austen was a genius of literature, and I absolutely have a fondness in my heart for Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, and all the cast and characters of Pride and Prejudice.
So, I was excited to give Eligible a try and see how Sittenfeld would adapt Austen’s novel about social hierarchies and personal biases to a contemporary time and setting. And, I am happy to report that Sittenfeld does an awesome job of sticking to Austen’s important plot points while tweaking details slightly to fit within the 21st century. There are many things about Pride and Prejudice that would seemingly be hard to incorporate in a modern setting (such as Bingley and Darcy’s wealth, for example), but Sittenfeld manages to find creative ways to account for these things, such as making Bingley a reality TV star and Darcy a neurosurgeon with an old family estate. She even addresses the subtle racism and bigotry of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in ways that are very relevant, particularly by portraying how these characters (who act and speak as if they jumped right from Austen’s original text) would react when meeting transgender and homosexual characters, as an example. Although aspects of these interactions left me feeling a bit uncomfortable because I felt that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were extremely offensive and narrow-minded, I understood the statement that Sittenfeld was attempting to make with these characters and I appreciate that she pushed the envelope to show just how detrimental these attitudes and behaviours are. Often, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are said to be humorous, the comic relief of Pride and Prejudice (particularly in the film adaptations), but I think Sittenfeld is smart to investigate how very awful and unfunny it would be if they existed in our modern times…and how very unfunny it is that there are still people who think like they do nowadays. There was certainly a broader messages to these points in Sittenfeld’s text, and I respected what she was trying to do and think she did it quite well, given the lighter feel of Eligible as a whole.
What was most fascinating about Eligible was how expertly Sittenfeld captures the spirit and tone of Pride and Prejudice without resorting to parody. Sittenfeld doesn’t emulate or imitate Austen’s style per say, but she somehow manages to write with a voice that is so similar to Austen’s while still being firmly contemporary. It’s really hard to explain unless you’ve read the novel and I would rather not cite entire passages because it would give too much of the beauty and style away, but suffice it to say that I was VERY impressed with Sittenfeld’s writing and with her mastery of a voice that is at once Austen-esque but also distinctly her own. You get this sense that you are reading a great work of literature while immersed in Eligible, and yet somehow the novel still feels light and breezy and pleasurable to get through. It is in many ways the perfect blend of a classic literary style with the modern day enjoyment factor characteristic of romance novels.
I want to give Eligible 5 stars because I enjoyed reading it just that much, so I am going to. But that doesn’t mean that it is a perfect book by any standards. I can’t actually say that I liked any of the characters; I do really love Elizabeth and Jane Bennet as characters in Pride and Prejudice but, in Eligible, there were aspects of their characters that annoyed me quite a bit, such as Jane’s absolute lack of direction in her life and Liz’s justification of having a relationship with a married man. It also threw me off at first that Jane and Liz are in their very late 30’s, and while this makes sense given that no one in contemporary society would call a 20 year old an old maid or spinster, it still made it a bit hard for me to picture them engaged in these particular sorts of romantic and familial foibles. I also found Chip Bingley and Darcy to be somewhat flat characters and felt that their personalities were not explored as much as I would have liked because they just weren’t given that much attention in the novel. But, for some reason, these issues didn’t at all detract from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole or from my eagerness to read it, and I was able to accept that I might not like all of the characters, but I certainly was excited to read about and spend time with them.
Oh screw it, I’m going to provide a few quotes here, ones that I found particularly funny and well-written during my reading. If you want to avoid all spoilers (if that’s even possible considering the entire novel is a retelling), I suggest you not read the passages below…
~ “‘It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex,’ Darcy continued, ‘but I feel as if I’m in love with you. You’re not beautiful, and you aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are. You’re a gossip fiend who tries to pass off your nosiness as anthropological interest in the human condition. And your family, obviously, is a disgrace. Yet in spite of all common sense, I can’t stop thinking about you. The time has come for us to abandon this ridiculous pretense of hate sex and admit that we’re a couple.’ Darcy had delivered this monologue stiffly, while mostly avoiding eye contact…” CLASSIC DARCY! (And yes, that’s right, Liz and Darcy do have casual sex in this adaptation – surprising, but not altogether unrealistic!)
~ “Such compliments – they were thrilling but almost impossible to absorb in this quantity, at this pace. It was like she was being pelted with a magnificent hail, and she wished she could save the individual stones to examine later, but they’d exist with such potency only now, in this moment.”
~ “and then – outside the lodge, behind the boulder, he in a tuxedo and she in a lavender bridesmaid dress – their faces met and they kissed at such length that the kiss contained multiple phases, including the one in which they both were smiling, practically laughing, and the one in which she forgot where she was.” A highly Austen-esque description – veiled, logical and informative!
~ “she loved Darcy too much to try to prove her love to anyone except him.” ~
All in all, Eligible is a GREAT novel and one that I HIGHLY recommend to Austen fans! It was a thoroughly unique take on Pride and Prejudice unlike anything I’ve ever encountered, and certainly just as entertaining as the original!
❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart