Tuesday, April 19, 2016

She's Funny Like You-Know-Who: Curtis Sittenfeld Channels Jane Austen with "Eligible"



Eligible-Amazon Book ReviewI know I'm supposed to say that Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible is a contemporary take on Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the subhead is "A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice," after all. And it is that, of course – there are the Bennet sisters, and a Mr Darcy, self centered women and arrogant suitors – and all the finely tuned rigamarole we've come to expect from, well, from Austen, of course, but also from the could-it-be dozens of imitators, updatings and homages to the 19th century British author that have been coming out for decades. So, ok, duly noted: Eligible is a modern retelling of what some think is Austen's greatest book, Pride and Prejudice.

But here's what I also think. Reading it, alone and hunkered down one weekend, as one should be while reading Jane Austen, the book that Eligible brought to mind was less P&P than its modern imitators: books by Cathleen Schine, say, or the very brand new and delightful The Nest. In the latter, as we've written here, the story centers on a family and a group of siblings' expectations about inheritance. In Eligible, the Bennet sisters fret about their parents and connive over the family homestead; they worry about money A LOT. That sounds a lot like The Nest to me – but then, isn't family and love and survival the topic of most novels these and any days, except the ones that are about, say, war – and even then?

No, what Sittenfeld has in common with Austen, and Sweeney, and Cathleen Schine and others of the Austen imitators is that she's funny, and observant and wry – just like you-know-who. Liz Bennet here works at a beauty magazine called Mascara, and while her sisters have trouble with the retro anti-feminist nature of such a publication, they are basically ignorant of all magazines and books because they "confined their reading to the screens of their phones." Liz, meanwhile, was "glad to have identified the one thing about [her lover'] she'd change, because It was similar to realizing what you'd forgotten to take on a trip, and if it was only perfume, as opposed to your driver's license, you were relieved."

There have been other updates to Jane Austen, of course – I personally am thankful the Zombies period has ended. There have also been updates to such American classic social observers as Henry James and Edith Wharton. And while some may compare plot lines and dissect where the original's and the homager's meet and diverge, I think that's beside the point. We all know what's going to happen with Mr Darcy in Eligible – even if all you've ever done is read Bridget Jones' Diary or seen the movie. With Sittenfeld, as with the best social observers, no matter the century, it's how well she leads us to the inevitable that counts. And Curtis SIttenfeld does it oh, so well.


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