Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

It is a hard life I lead. I have so many books to read that I don’t seem to get time to re-read anymore. That’s a thing, right? Not just me? Before I started this blog I read a lot but also made time to re-read some of my favourites every few years. Lord of the Rings. Enchanted April. Items from the complete collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances my Mum gave me (when she needed space at home but couldn’t bear to lose the book altogether – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…). And, most often, the novels of Jane Austen. Honestly, I think I must have read them all about once every other year – these stories are timeless and, like the very best writing, always reveal a different facet with each reading. Not major revelations but nuances which reveal themselves to you as you mature. Hugely rewarding and, presumably, one of the reasons why Austen’s novels are still read, adapted for film and tv and used as the basis for sequels, pastiches and retellings to this day.

eligibleRecently Harpercollins embarked on the ambitious Austen Project – where a range of contemporary novelists were engaged to write versions of the six main novels, updated to modern day. So far Joanna Trollope has tackled Sense and Sensibility, Emma fell to Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid gave Northanger Abbey a make-over and what has been really interesting is seeing how the works of a relatively young, middle class, straight white woman have been tackled by writers of differing ages, genders and sexual orientations. Of course so far all the authors have been British but that has now been challenged by Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on the daddy of all Austen novels, Pride and Prejudice.

I’m going to be really honest here and say that I did enjoy this book but it wasn’t a patch on the real thing.  The updating of such a well-known plot was handled well – the Bennet sisters now range in age from early twenties to almost forty so that they can range from feckless youth to almost too old to have children, reputation is no longer lost by engaging in pre-marital sex but by breaking other societal rules. And these rules, largely based around race, gender and sexuality, are what give me problems. To update Mrs Bennet she has been made to be thoughtlessly ever-so-slightly racist and homophobic, but even the two oldest sisters (who have lived in New York City for years for goodness sake) seem to be quite ill-informed on the subject of transgender people for example. Maybe this is an extrapolation of Austen’s original small-town settings but it doesn’t seem quite right to me somehow.  I also found the fact that Lizzy was referred to as ‘Liz’ for much of the time as odd – Liz is a name which hasn’t aged well (unlike Jane, Mary, Kitty or Lydia…) – but that is definitely my fault!

This is a well-written book – although, oddly, I think this book will date much quicker than the original somehow. The quality of the bones of the story means it has a good plot and the characters, on the whole, have updated fairly accurately. My only real problem is Mary – she seems to have been treated pretty harshly throughout the book (no redeeming features for her!) and the glimpse we get of her psychology in the final chapter isn’t much of an improvement. I think Sittenfeld could probably write an interesting book about her, however, once she is removed from the constraints of Austen’s plot.

As I said before I did enjoy reading this but the main thing it has given me is a strong urge to revisit Pride & Prejudice itself. A story that timeless is always worth making time for.

Jane

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