When one of your favorite authors does a “modern retelling” of perhaps your favorite book of all time, it can go one of two ways. You’ll either end up terribly disappointed or you’ll be thrilled with the results. I am happy to report that in the case of Curtis Sittenfeld adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the result fell into the latter camp.
As part of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has recast Austen’s beloved Bennet sisters in 2013 Cincinnati in her upcoming novel Eligible. Lizzie (now Liz) is a NY-based writer for a woman’s magazine called Mascara. Jane is a yoga instructor in New York, and the three youngest Bennet sisters still live at home with their parents in Cincinnati. The younger two, Kitty and Lydia, are rather vapid Crossfit addicts, and Mary doesn’t really have much of an identity at all.
The sisters all end up in Cincinnati when Mr. Bennett has heart surgery and faces a long convalescence at home. Mrs. Bennett, who is exactly like the Mrs. Bennett in the original, is too busy to care for her husband, as she is planning a benefit lunch that takes up all of her time. But she’s not too busy to get involved when a new, eligible doctor enters the Cincinatti scene – Chip Bingley. She is all too eager to set him up with her aging, unmarried daughters, in the hopes that one of them will finally get hitched.
All of our favorite characters are here: Mr. Collins (now Liz’s dotcom millionaire cousin), Charlotte Lucas, Ms. de Bourgh, and of course, the dreamy Fitzwilliam Darcy. They’ve each been given a 21st century update, but they play their parts perfectly.
Here’s what I admire most about Eligible: Sittenfeld must have carefully diagrammed the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice, marking the precise points in the novel when Liz and Darcy have chance meetings, when she learns certain things about him, when various scandals plague the Bennets, etc., and then crafted the Eligible plot around those points, because it is just perfectly paced. She’s such a great storyteller already, but having her story match and adapt Austen’s equally compelling storytelling is just a treat.
A few warnings: there is a lot of sex in the book (some of which happens quite a bit earlier in Eligible than in its predecessor), and the end gets a bit absurd. It’s all a lot courser than Austen’s refined 19th-century England. Which is of course the point – how would a family like the Bennets fare in present-day America?
If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, you’ll enjoy Eligible. If you’re an Austen fan, you’ll appreciate Eligible. And if you’re a fan of both, you’ll be in heaven. (Due out April 19.)