Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery. With five sisters under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status and it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men…
Here’s the thing about Jane Austen: people are so busy talking about how much she contributed to English literature and holding up her books as examples of Great Literary Works, that they forget that Austen spent a lot of her time poking fun at others and her books were intended to be parodies of the social conventions of her time. Pride and Prejudice comments on social class, and largely mocks the idea of marriage as some kind of game. I’m probably going to have my Austenite card revoked for saying this, but in this sense Eligible is a great adaptation of the original.
Easily the best book to come out of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has avoided the mistakes made by other authors in the series (Val McDermid – Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope – Sense and Sensibility and Alexander McCall Smith – Emma), by updating Austen’s novel so that it works in a modern context, and still retaining the original spirit of the characters (sorry, but what’s with your Emma Woodhouse, McCall Smith? I’m still offended – yes, offended – by that retelling).
In this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Liz and Jane Bennet are single thirty-somethings that have returned home to help out their family after their father’s heart attack. All five of the Bennet sisters have been updated wonderfully. They are adults and, with the exception of Jane and Liz, are still living at home and doing absolutely nothing with their lives. All are true to the original – I have a soft spot for Mary Bennet (probably because I spent five months of my life being her) and tend to argue that she got an unfair rap, but even I couldn’t help but giggle at Sittenfeld’s Mary.
It always strikes me how hard it must be to write Liz(zy) – she’s judgemental, but cannot come across as hypocritical or a bossy know-it-all. She’s intelligent, but constantly misjudges those around her. She manages to find the humour in almost every situation – she’s kind of like wonder woman. Toss in the fact that she is one of the most beloved character in English literature, and there must be an enormous amount of pressure on your shoulders. Sittenfeld did an admirable job in creating a modern Liz, although I did feel there was something lacking in Liz and Darcy’s romance.
Mr & Mrs Bennet have been drawn beautifully – Mrs Bennet is everything I imagined a 21st-century version of her behaving: she’s racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-feminist and constantly waxing on the importance of social propriety and is casually cruel to her family (all the while being completely oblivious). Mr Bennet retains his signature dry wit (and neglectful parenting style).
Sittenfeld includes her own social commentary – not just limited to televised love stories, but also weaving in identity politics (race, gender) into the mix. It was refreshing to see a transgender character, even if I did think the handling of it was a little clunky.
A few little complaints (teensy, tiny ones!):
- As a result of the updated setting and moving the story to the US – Cincinnati, to be exact – the humour is a lot cruder and more in your face than I was expecting it to be.
- I will never be a fan of the short chapters- you know, the ones that are a page or two long? This book had a few, and it annoyed me no end.
Also, there were a lot of filler scenes and Sittenfeld would often go off on unnecessary tangents. This book could’ve been a lot shorter, although Sittenfeld has a distinctive voice and her work has this readability factor, so even though this book was 500+ pages long, it felt more like 300.
All in all, a wonderful nod to Pride and Prejudice and probably the saving grace of the Austen Project.
Please note: this review originally appeared on my blog, What Kim Read Next. It has been reformatted and edited.