Sunday, 12 June 2016

#CBR8 Book 54: "Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

I have mentioned more than once my immense fondness and love for the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I read the companion book about Lizzie, and the sequel of sorts, about Lydia. I was of the opinion that Pride and Prejudice had been modernised pretty successfully already. But as we have seen in the last few years with the many different iterations of Sherlock Holmes, in films, books and TV, a really good thing can inspire a lot of different interpretations.

Eligible is part of The Austen Project, which about 200 years after her death, pairs six contemporary fiction authors with the works of beloved Jane Austen, asking them to re-imagine them in a modern setting. Joanna Trollope has done Sense and Sensibility, Val McDermid has done Northanger Abbey, Alexander McCall Smith has done Emma, and Curtis Sittenfeld is tasked with giving us a contemporary literary twist on Jane and Lizzie (or Liz, as she's mostly referred to here), Bingley and Darcy. Set in Cincinnati, it has Jane being a yoga instructor trying to get pregnant with IVF, as she has yet to find a man she really likes; Elizabeth is a successful magazine columnist, conducting an affair with the married Jasper Wick; Mary is the eternal student, generally completely uninterested in any of her sisters' concerns; while Kitty and Lydia are cross-fit and paleo diet fanatics. Chip Bingley is a handsome ER doctor who recently participated in the popular reality show Eligible (think The Bachelor, you're clearly meant to), his ambitious sister Caroline is his manager and Fitzwilliam Darcy is his arrogant neurosurgeon friend, who can't seem to play well with others in a social setting.

The two eldest Bennet women (Jane is about to turn forty) move back home after their father has an accident and breaks his arm badly. It's clear that Mr. Bennet has badly mismanaged the family's finances, not helped by his oblivious wife, who relieves stress by shopping online and hoarding. Mrs. Bennet desperately wants one of her daughters to hit it off with Chip Bingley, and is delighted when he and Jane seem instantly smitten with one another. Liz, meanwhile, tries to get her father to understand that their huge childhood home needs to be cleaned, fixed up and put on the market. The three younger sisters need to leave the nest and fend for themselves, while the Bennet parents move into a more affordable apartment. Because Chip and Jane start dating, Liz frequently runs into Darcy, slowly beginning to wonder if their constant sniping is a sign of something else.

I'm not going to lie, I preferred The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to this, and just thought it was a lot more fun. The ways in which Sittenfeld manages to make the tale a lot more diverse in a number of different ways is cleverly done and I thought the inclusion of Ham was brilliant (although he is WAY too good for Lydia!). I thought the grand reveal of Mary's secret Tuesday night outings could have been revealed at a different point of the book than the very last chapter - it felt weird to have her get a tacked-on chapter at the very end, as an after-thought almost.

While it was a bit slow to start, I was fairly quickly drawn into the book, and due to the short chapters, I had devoured about two thirds of the book in one sitting, before realising that it really was quite late at night and I had things I needed to do the next day. So while there were parts of the book that dragged, and I really could have done without the spider infestation (!), I really did like the book and for people who haven't already discovered the YouTube series (what's wrong with you, don't you like awesome things?), it may even be the preferred version. I appreciated seeing the elder Bennet sisters as more mature and established women, but ultimately prefer grad student Lizzie.

Judging a book by its cover: What with this book being part of The Austen Project and published as serious contemporary fiction, I can only assume that the really boring cover is to assure people that while this book may be based on one of the most famous romances of all time, it's not actually a romance novel per se. It's perfectly acceptable intellectual reading, and as such, has a bland inoffensive cover. With a child's drawing of an expensive engagement ring pasted onto the cover for no good reason. Maybe the art director wanted to do a favour for their child/niece/nephew. Who knows? Romance novels have a lot of awful covers, but this is just boring and not particularly inviting. If I wasn't really curious about the Pride and Prejudice reimagining and had seen it favourable reviewed in  several places, I would never have picked up this book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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