ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

What an unusual book “Eligible” is.

Unusual because it is an undoubtedly clever book, whilst being simultaneously rather obvious, and yet overall the book is totally compelling, because you “know” all the characters in the book.

So well.

So, so well.

You “know” the plot.

You “know” how it will end, for Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia…Bennet.

Quite.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know and love the Bennet family, and who doesn’t know exactly how their lives will pan out?

Except this Bennet family does not live in early 19th century England, but 21st century Cincinnati, and therein lies both the cleverness and the slight clunkiness of the plot.

Transposing a family of largely dependent young women and their mother who is anxiously looking for husbands for them, to 21st century middle America is an interesting literary conceit, but it doesn’t always seem as though these sisters are actually living in Cincinnati in 2013.

Despite the use of sms‘s and Google, there is a slight slowness to the rhythm of their lives, as they go for months without contacting people because of a misunderstanding, or elope (oh yes!) and when Mr. Darcy bows…well…

All through this 21st century re-imagining of “Pride & Prejudice” I kept waiting for the moment when Elizabeth Bennet would make a wry aside about their famous precursors. I kept expecting a joking insider reference to life imitating art, or some such, but it didn’t happen.

And for me, that was one of the weak spots in this otherwise entertaining novel.

Clever though it is to re-imagine the Bennet girls as yoga teachers and journalists, it might have been almost cleverer to have written a book about 5 sisters who were NOT named Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, and leave us to guess.

Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins – they all appear, under their “Pride & Prejudice” names, and it is all just a wee bit too obvious.

Which is why Jasper works so well as a character. Unlike the other characters, whose role was announced by their name, you have to work out who Jasper is, and there is one clever clue half way through the book – & I’m thrilled to say I’d guessed before then, but I am a bit of “P&P” fan-girl.

There is a lovely re-imagining of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and it was moments like Liz’s meeting with the veteran octogenarian feminist writer Ms de Bourgh, that made me wish that the talented Ms Sittenfeld had re-imagined her characters a little more.

Jasper also doesn’t follow the exact path Jane Austen set out for him, which is part of the success of his character, and along with that of Ms de Bourgh’s cameo appearance, it made me feel that had “Eligible” been based more loosely on “Pride & Prejudice,” it would have been even more of a fun read.

Because it is, undoubtedly, a fun read, but had the author made us guess a little more about her Cincinnati versions of these fictional greats, I think “Eligible” would have been very, very clever as well as just fun.

There is no famous opening line, and the closest we get to it is when Mrs. Bennet says of Mr. Collins:

“He’s a lawyer in Atlanta and he’s very active in his church. If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.”

Well played, Ms Sittenfeld. Super well played.

Of all the characters in the book, it is Mr. Bennet who pays the most homage to his 19th century avatar.

Take, for example, this delicious exchange:

“ “Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

If Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet had met a nurse in hospital, this is, one feels, exactly how he might have spoken.

A good read, and I must confess, one that got more engrossing the tackier the 2013 version of their lives became. There are no balls at Netherfield, no cotillions, but there is croquet and lashings of reality TV.

Fun, and the end is totally as it should be.

If you would like to read “Eligible” now, then it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below, & you’re all sorted.

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