Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


published 2016

Eligible 3Eligible 4


Liz started the engine as her mother climbed into the backseat.

 “The phone rang, and it was Ginger Drossman inviting us for brunch,” Mrs Bennet said. “That’s what took so long.” As she leaned forward into the front seat, a look of concern pinched Mrs Bennet’s features. “Lizzy, I’m sure there’s time for you to run in and put on a skirt.”

In her teens or early twenties, such a remark would have irritated Liz, but at thirty-eight, having wardrobe fights with her mother felt preposterous. Cheerfully she said, “Nope, I’m comfortable.” Even if her mother couldn’t recognize it, the shorts she had on were extremely stylish, as were her sleeveless white blouse and straw sandals.

Jane spoke as they pulled out of the driveway. She said, “I think Lizzy looks pretty.”

[Later, at a different social event]

Darcy wore high-quality flip-flops, khaki pants, and a white oxford cloth shirt rolled up to the elbows and plain save for a monogram on the left breast pocket – FCD V it said, and Liz knew from looking online that his middle name was Cornelius.

commentary: A rewrite of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, re-imagined to a contemporary setting in Cincinnati.

Now there’s a book that could have gone either way, and if you look at the reviews from critics and readers you would not be helped – this book was loved and loathed in roughly equal measure. I don’t think anyone can predict how they will react to it: you have to read it.

I absolutely loved it: a five-star book, and one I’m sure I will read again. I like Curtis Sittenfeld very much – her American Wife is one of the best books I’ve read this century. But on the whole I don’t particularly like rewrites and continuations. So I was open, and was completely converted. (In this particular case -  this doesn’t make me any more likely to read anyone else’s remakes.)

The book is completely hilarious, beautifully imagined, tells a compelling and very entertaining story, and skewers modern life with a light touch. And at the same time there is tremendous fun to be had in pairing off the characters with Austen’s originals, and watching and admiring the way she finds a 21st century equivalent of the original moments, social events and problems.

Mrs Bennet is a wonderful modern equivalent of the original:
“He’s a lawyer in Atlanta, and he’s very active in his church,” Mrs Bennet said. “If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.”
Amid the jokes there are often great perceptions, or just moments of life.
Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true to a person who didn’t care. 

Liz remembered… the three or four times they’d crossed paths in their twenties, when their classmates had gathered at bars the night before Thanksgiving.
[In the UK that would be Christmas Eve. When 20+ singles got back to their parents’ house for the festive season, they'd expect a message to have been left about meeting at a certain bar…]
“It’s a master’s in psychology, right?” Liz said, and Mary nodded. “Would you like to be a therapist?” Liz asked,. The notion seemed at best ill-advised and at worst harmful to others. To her relief, Mary shook her head.
My favourite matchup with the original book was the scene where 19th Century Lizzie walks through the mud to visit her unwell sister: Bingley’s sisters are horrified and comment on her torn and dirty petticoat. In 2013 Liz can’t get a ride to the hospital, so runs there in her athletic gear. Perfect.

I can’t guarantee that anyone else will like this book – always true, of course, but this is an extreme case. While it would be more than usually pointless to argue with someone about it, a lot of the negative reviews criticize the vulgarity, bitchiness and silliness that Sittenfeld features. You do wonder if those people have actually read Jane Austen? To say that dear dear Jane was above such things is simply not true – quite the reverse, she seems to have made it her role in life to point them out.

I thought it was the perfect book, clever and well-written, and not just a light read either – I kept thinking about it after I finished it. Of course many of the situations are slightly unreal, but Sittenfeld has a lot to say about modern life that makes sense. 

I had one problem with the book: the younger sisters use a slang phrase, in a context making it clear it is quite rude. I had not come across the phrase, so I looked it up - and am SO sorry that I did, I would rather not have known. I am not going to tell you what it was.



















18 comments:

  1. Hmmm....In general, Moira, I'm with you about re-writes and so on. I prefer the original. Still, I do like the writing style. And the characters sound well-crafted. I do like the look at modern life, too. Hmmm.....

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    1. I was thinking of you, Margot, when I mentioned people who don't like rewrites! I know how you feel, and as I say I really can't recommend this one for everyone, fun though it is.

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  2. I'm always reluctant to read rewrites, but this does sound interesting.

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    1. It takes a lot to convince me, but this one did.

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  3. Now, that last line is something that makes me want to instantly run off and order the book just to see what the phrase was!

    I'm not wild about rewrites either, but this one does sound quite intriguing. I had a very bad experience with another rewrite of this exact book (one of the most drearily boring, monotonously done, self-satisfied things I've ever read, and having to pretend I was impressed so as not to hurt their feelings... Fortunately we're no longer speaking, so I don't have to pretend any longer.)

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    1. There's always one, Daniel, and I might have known it would be you! I truly wish I had not looked up this phrase, and I am not particularly faint of heart or shockable. Do you REALLY want to know?
      That's hilarious about your friend(?)'s book...

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    2. I REALLY want to know. To be honest, I'm really pretty boggled as to how bad it must be...!

      Not a friend. An ex. Someone who repeatedly went on and on about how Jane Austen was the expert on true love and how everyone should use Pride and Prejudice as the model for relationships.

      More than once I thought "Um, you do realise she was a satirical, self-aware spinster?"

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    3. Maybe I'll email you a tipoff...?
      Far it be from me to comment on others' relationships but - better off without the love-expert.

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    1. No, really not, you're probably one of those people who want to stick with the original Jane Austen for frequent re-reads.

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  5. I can't say I'm convinced either, I'm afraid. I was looking at this book the other day in a shop, and wondered whether to buy it; that's why I read your post with interest. Yes, it seems witty and has some edge, but I can't help wondering what the point is, to update something so rooted in its contemporary culture. I suppose the response to that would be, JA is 'skewering' traits of human nature that are timeless. The film adaptations of Austen, like 'Clueless', did a pretty good job, so maybe I should give it a try...

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    1. I am so on the fence about actually positively recommending this one - did you read some of those reviews, in the NYT and Guardian? She got totally hammered. But I do love CS, and for sheer enjoyment this was wonderful. I don't expect to re-read many of the books I get through in a year, but I am certain I will re-read this one. (I might tear out the page with the horrible phrase on it! Really don't want to think about it)

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    2. Yes, I was going to mention "Clueless" because that is my favorite Austen knock-off (I thought the traditional Gwynneth Paltrow version of "Emma" was AWful). From the excerpts this sounds interesting, and I love that one quote about revealing truth. Been there.

      P.S. to Simon: Just finished "Listening for Jupiter." Loved it! For such a short book I was surprised how involved I was with the characters. It didn't hurt that I have an old friend named Pierre Landry. :-)

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    3. Yes, Clueless is terrific, I love that film.

      I don't know the book you mention at all. Should I try it?

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    4. It's very different and not for everybody. Simon thought if I liked Haruki Murakami I'd like this book. I do and I did. It's very alternative world-like, and I don't know if that appeals to you. It reminded me a bit of an old Twilight Zone episode.

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  6. I am not generally interested in rewrites, although as long as people enjoy reading them, there is not a thing wrong with them. Just not for me. I do hope I find the time to reread Pride and Prejudice this year.

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    1. I didn't expect that this would be such a joyous read, and that's what made it for me. But as I say, very much not pushing this one on people...

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