… I don’t like Jane Austen.
Are you shocked? Maybe you feel the same way? I have reader friends, who, when I share this revelation, look at me, aghast. It doesn’t comport with their view of me, I guess. They assume that Jane and I would go way, way back and that we’d be the best of friends.
The truth, though, is that I didn’t read Jane Austen until a few years ago. Perhaps, if I had read her in high school or college, I’d be a groupie. There is something about finding the right book at the right time. I didn’t encounter Austen until my 40s; was that too late? Is that why I can’t find my way to filling my shelves with her books?
I came to Austen through my book club. We had decided, early on in our lifespan, to read Sense and Sensibility. It was a favorite among several of the members and they were eager to re-read the 1813 classic. I, however, misread the book selection announcement and read Pride and Prejudice instead. I didn’t figure out my error until we sat down, over wine and yummy snacks, to discuss the book. And, you know what? Even though I hadn’t read Sense and Sensibility, I could still discuss the book because it was essentially the same as Pride and Prejudice. When I tell this story to Jane Austen fans, they giggle and say something like “Oh, that’s true that they are similar! But didn’t you love the book?”
Um, no, I didn’t. It was fine, but it didn’t make me want to run out anytime soon to read more Jane Austen.
I do, however, like the writing of Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of American Wife (which I read last year and really liked), Sisterland, and Prep. Last week, while perusing the new releases fiction section at my library, I found Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Sittenfeld’s 2016 novel. Eligible is book four of the Austen Project, an initiative to retell Jane Austen’s novels through the lens of 21st century writers like Sittenfeld, Alexander McCall Smith, Joanna Trollope, and Val McDermid. Since I found American Wife (the author’s imagining of the interior life of a First Lady, loosely based on Laura Bush) so enjoyable, I decided to give Eligible—Jane Austen notwithstanding—a chance.
An homage to all that is special about Cincinnati (Sittenfeld’s hometown) as much to Austen, Eligible touches on issues of feminism, gender, and wealth. If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, here’s the plot synopsis of what is a very beloved book: the five Bennett sisters aren’t married when the novel opens, much to the dismay of their mother. Will Jane, the oldest daughter, become a spinster or will she find true love? Will Elizabeth find her soul mate in Darcy, or will her propensity to issue snap judgements doom her to be alone? What of the younger sisters, Kitty, Mary, and Lydia? You have to read Eligible—or Pride and Prejudice—to find out.
Sittenfeld is a big Jane Austen fan, which makes her a perfect fit for the Austen Project. She effectively brings the story of the Bennett family and the daughters’ journeys to love and independence from 19th century England to the modern-day. While the characters have lives Austen likely could never have imagined—for example, Elizabeth is a journalist; her older sister, Jane, is a yoga instructor; and Jane’s intended participated in a reality television dating show—they retain the optimism that draws readers to the original novel.
Eligible has brisk pacing which kept me reading well past bedtime several times. Sittenfeld is an entertaining writer, and she manages to get you excited about characters who are sometimes act in a less than delightful fashion. She reflects Austen’s skill at capturing manners and social pressure in a way that readers of today can find relatable. And, if you’re an Austen fan, you’ll know how Eligible ends, but I contend that Sittenfeld will make you want to keep reading until the end.
Recommendation: The 488-page novel has a number of very short (one to two-page) chapters which make it a perfect read for the commute to work or plane ride. It’s more than just-that-book-you-read-on-vacation, though; Sittenfeld weaves in current issues into her novel—such as the challenge of children in their 20s and 30s still living in their childhood homes, the unreality of reality television, being transgender, and more—which updates a story about love to a commentary about life today.
Rating: 4/5 stars