So far, the Austen Project, for which current writers rework Jane Austen’s novels within a modern framework, hasn’t worked for me. I have a theory that the readers who like them are reading mostly for plot, whereas I read Austen for her quick but subtle wit and her precision. Let’s face it, although humor is always in style, these days subtlety is not. Still, I thought I’d give Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s reworking of Pride and Prejudice, a try.
Obviously, some of the dilemmas in the original novel are just not workable in today’s society, a problem that foundered Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility. Sittenfeld is wise enough to realize this and has made significant changes to the characters and plot.
Liz Bennett is a magazine writer who lives in New York. She and her sister, Jane, a yoga instructor, have returned to their home town, Cincinnati, to help out after Mr. Bennett’s heart attack. Their help is needed even though their three younger sisters, suffering from failure to launch, are still living at home, because they are doing nothing. Mrs. Bennett, a social climber, is too involved in running a charitable event to take her husband to his doctor’s appointments.
Jane is pushing forty, so she started in vitro fertilization before returning home. Then she meets Chip Bingley at a charity event. Jane and Chip immediately become involved, but Liz has formed a negative impression of Chip’s friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, because of remarks she overhears at a party.
Liz has been involved for years with Jasper, a man she fell in love with in her early 20’s. Jasper claims he has an open marriage, and he has been seeing Liz on the side. When Jasper hears Liz has met Darcy, he hints at some misbehavior of Darcy’s when the two attended Stanford together.
Of the Austen Project novels I’ve read, this is the most successful rewrite, but the bar is fairly low. Although the dialogue is humorous, it’s not the sparkling dialogue of the original. Kitty and Lydia, for example, are almost unbelievably vulgar and poorly behaved. It’s also hard for me to believe that these days a mother would be pushing marriage after Jane and Chip have only had a few dates.
I was fairly well entertained, though, until the emphasis went to the Eligible reality show. Although I’m sure Sittenfeld had fun with her parody, that’s where I felt the novel lost steam.