Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld: Deft modern take on ‘Pride and Prejudice’

I ardently admired and loved this book, writes Anna Carey

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
ISBN-13: 978-0007486298
Publisher: Borough Press
Guideline Price: £14.99

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen pastiche . . . oh, forget it. It's hard to write about Pride and Prejudice without falling into cliche. Jane Austen's 1813 novel created the template for the modern romantic comedy (with a little help from Much Ado About Nothing), which now means that as soon as we encounter a fictional man and woman who clash but are clearly attracted to each other, we know that eventually they are going to end up together (with or without a vast country estate).

So how do you rework Austen’s original without telling the audience something they already know?

Well, plenty of people have tried. Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary was a direct homage to Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet's romance, but it didn't stick to Austen's plot too closely. Jo Baker's brilliant Longbourn showed the Bennets' family home from the servants' point of view. The delightful web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a more explicit updating of the story, told through video blogs in which characters speak directly to the camera.

Curtis Sittenfeld, however, was faced with a particularly rigid challenge. Her new novel , Eligible, is the fourth in Borough Press's The Austen Project, in which 21st-century authors retell Austen's novels in a contemporary setting. Characters, key plot points, the straightforward novel format – all remain more or less the same.


Happily, Sittenfeld has taken all of these things and used them to create a hugely entertaining and surprisingly unpredictable book, bursting with wit and charm.

Eligible is set in Cincinnati, where Mr and Mrs Bennet live in a large house with their three youngest daughters, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, none of whom has ever had a real job.

Their older children, Liz and Jane, are the only ones to have flown the family nest and earned their own living; they both live in New York, where Jane is a yoga teacher and Liz a journalist. But when Mr Bennet has a heart attack in summer 2013, Jane and Liz return to the family home to help out.

Their mother is eager to tell them about a newcomer to the neighbourhood: Chip Bingley is a rich young doctor who is also a reality TV star, having appeared on the dating show Eligible. The reader can guess what happens next (though only up to a point). Chip and Jane are immediately attracted to each other, Lydia and Kitty make shows of themselves and Liz clashes with Chip's neurosurgeon friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. And then there's her aunt's stepson, tech millionaire Willie Collins . . .

Every book should be judged on its own merits, but if you know Pride and Prejudice well, it's impossible to judge how someone unfamiliar with it would experience Eligible. However, I really don't think ignorance of the original would prevent anyone enjoying a novel with such well-drawn characters and such an effective plot (thanks, Jane), written with deadpan wit.

Still, the book is intended to be compared to the original, and a lot of pleasure comes from noting just how successfully Sittenfeld has transferred the original novel to the present day. There are lots of fun little details – instead of tramping over the muddy fields to see a sick Jane, Liz throws on her running gear and pounds the hot, muggy streets. But perhaps the biggest challenge facing any would-be Austen updater is transferring a plot based on Regency social mores (and inheritance laws) to the 21st century.

Modern misdemeanour

Sittenfeld pulls this off incredibly well. Jane and Liz are pushing 40, an age at which many women still experience familial pressure to get married, while the Bennets are in danger of losing their house because of expensive medical bills. Even Lydia’s elopement is convincing, given her family, and Wickham (now journalist Jasper Wick) has committed just the right modern crime to crush Liz’s attraction.

Some characters become less sympathetic in the update. In the original, Mrs Bennet was annoying and vulgar but was also the only Bennet parent actively trying to save her daughters from destitution. Now she’s a shopping-addicted bigot driven largely by snobbery. Sittenfeld is kinder to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, however, transforming her into a wise, Gloria Steinem-esque feminist.

It’s all great fun, but none of it would mean anything if the central romance didn’t work. It’s easy for a fictional couple who constantly spar to feel contrived or simply mean. But in Liz and Darcy’s case, their mutual rudeness feels totally convincing. As Liz sees it, “The animosity between them was strangely liberating; offending each other had never posed a hypothetical threat but, rather, was the basis of their relationship”. By the time the happy ending is reached, it feels genuinely earned. If I may steal a phrase from the original Darcy, I ardently admired and loved this book.

Anna Carey's latest book is Rebecca is Always Right