Review: “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible

Jane Austen hasn’t written a new book in 200 years, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to resurrect, recast and reimagine her old ones. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, has enjoyed a full and occasionally wacko afterlife. It’s been a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride & Pre­judice), an undead-themed novelty novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), a frothy homage (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and, best of all, a BBC mini-series that established the universal truth that a billowy poet’s blouse is one hot garment on a man, if the blouse is wet and the man is Colin Firth.

Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves the story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs, with a scene that will feel charmingly familiar to anyone who knows Pride and Prejudice. There’s Mrs Bennet calculating the availability of Mr Bingley, who has recently arrived in town looking for a wife. There’s Mr Bennet barely suppressing his irritation. And Lizzy is still the bright second daughter — although now almost twice as old as her Austen original — wittily observing all these personalities while navigating the cross-currents of her own heart.

But in this reiteration, Chip Bingley isn’t just a handsome gentleman; he’s a handsome doctor, and a former contestant on the reality TV dating show Eligible. His proud friend Mr Darcy is a brain surgeon. Such updates continue down the cast of characters, from Lizzy, now a magazine writer, to Jasper Wick, just as dangerous as Mr Wickham, but with a new and more odious secret past.

The essential elements of Austen’s plot have been neatly rehabbed, too. Mr Bennet, you’ll recall, had no sons to inherit his estate, which threatens his family with the eventual loss of their home. Sittenfeld’s Mr Bennet faces crushing medical bills, which will just as surely leave his family homeless. Other translations to our modern times are as creative: Artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery add complications inconceivable to a society once determined by primogeniture laws.

As a long game of literary Mad Libs, Eligible is undeniably delightful. Aeroplanes for horses! Texts for letters! Tedious Cousin William is now a tedious Web programmer. And Darcy’s notorious marriage proposal sounds hilariously rude in the sterile language of his medical mind: “It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex,” he tells Lizzy, “but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Who could resist that?

Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire. After all, just as the Austen Project recasts Regency romance in the 21st century so “The Bachelor” recasts modern dating in terms of Regency courtship. In either direction, the mashup is just as awkward and hypnotically bizarre.

Unfortunately, though, Sittenfeld pulls back far too soon, and her novel grows sentimental when it should develop real bite. No matter how up-to-date Eligible might be, anachronisms lie around the story like lace doilies at McDonald’s. The Bennet sisters are thoroughly liberated women weirdly corseted by old-fashioned attitudes about marriage. And Sittenfeld’s dialogue, usually so contemporary, can suddenly grow arthritic with costume-drama formality, as when Mr Bingley says to Mrs Bennet, “I wouldn’t want to offend your sense of propriety.” That, madam, offends my sense of reality.

It helps tremendously that Eligible moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props aren’t sufficient to modernise Pride and Prejudice, even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often Eligible delivers humour that’s merely glib or crude. In the middle of the novel, Liz interviews a Gloria Steinem-esque character, and their encounter promises a sharper feminist perspective, but once again the scene never delivers the social insight that could push this story beyond merely a diverting lark. And watching Liz straddle Darcy in bed for a rousing session of what they call “hate sex” won’t get us there either.

Modern-day Mrs Bennet is a snob, a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite, but she’s got the right idea when she says, “I’ve always far preferred a good book.”

We already have that book. We’ve had it for 200 years. And it’s worth rereading.

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