Record Review: In Eligible, Austen’s characters find a home in modern America

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a valuable piece of intellectual property[1] must be want of money-grubbing spinoffs, sequels, and adaptations.

Pride and Prejudice is a tough tale to adapt to modern times, with the fee tail and male-only inheritance being main plot devices of the novel. Today, of course, women can hold jobs, inherit property, and are not generally obliged to marry by 22.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld addresses these limitations by upping the age of the characters (Jane is now 39, while Lizzy, now called Liz, is 38). The novel introduces new financial troubles and creates new causes for familial and romantic strife. Among them is the Bachelor-like reality show called “Eligible,” which recurs throughout to incite action and variously separate and reunite characters.

(I suppose I ought to be grateful to my roommate for having me watch a few episodes of the Bachelor this season[2], for my enjoyment of the novel was rather increased by my increased background knowledge of such shows.)

Ms. Sittenfeld does a terrific job bringing the main characters to life. The younger Bennet sisters seemed even more alive and three-dimensional than in the original. Droll middle child Mary particularly takes on a breath of life, despite being considered by Liz and everyone else as the most unattractive and unpleasant Bennet sister.

The setting is removed to Cincinnati, which I suppose Ms. Sittenfeld chose because it was her own hometown. Write what you know, I guess. Skyline Chili (a local restaurant chain featuring cocoa and cinnamon as spices in its namesake chili[3]) is featured prominently, and Darcy’s supposed unpretentious sensibilities are apparently illustrated by his love of the restaurant.

Darcy, with his “long, hairy, muscular body,” seems like a bit of fan-service. Given his absurd levels of wealth and education (he is now a literal brain surgeon), there hardly seems to be any reason at all for him to be in Cincinnati, which he seemingly loathes. Yet if readers may suspend their disbelief, they may indulge in fantasies about a cool, sarcastic, “practically sculpted,” Harvard-educated[4] doctor who spends his spare time saving kittens.

Ms. Sittenfeld takes the concept of chaptering to the next level, filling the book with 181 (!) chapters,[5] some barely longer than a half page. Almost all the chapters were well-drawn vignettes that kept the action going and helped move the 512 pages of the novel swiftly along (though some of the flashbacks were a bit plodding).

In a perhaps unintended way, the novel illustrates the mystery of love. Jane and Bingley seemed to share a connection palpable even through mere words, though their time together was almost all off the page (as in the original). In contrast, the connection between Liz and Darcy feels rather more intellectual, which Hollywood has told me to mean one that’s somehow less powerful than one based only in raw emotion.

Still, Eligible fell short of its promise in a few ways.

An enduring quality of Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s uncanny ability to critique without being overbearing. As the title suggests, Pride and Prejudice is a sharp evaluation of its titular sins. Darcy cannot bring himself to admit his love, instead concealing it behind insults, and Lizzy is quick to judge everyone around her and makes a fool of herself in the process. Eligible abandons Pride and Prejudice‘s theme of personal prejudice in favor of group prejudice, choosing transphobia as its illustrative issue du jour. While transphobia is certainly not unworthy of stricture, the book’s quotidian take on it is less than inspiring.

Ms. Austen made her points not by reasoned argument, but by simply telling us who was a fool and had foolish opinions. (“Mr. Collins was not a sensible man.”; “[Mrs. Bennet] was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”). In contrast, Ms. Sittenfeld labors through her attack on transphobia (“Liz had via her smartphone learned about the kathoey in Southeast Asia and the salzikrum of the ancient Middle East. Also, she now knew to refer to it as a gender reassignment rather than a sex change.”), and the novel and its critique of transphobia suffers for its ham-fistedness. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner this novel is not.

On points of character, Ms. Sittenfeld also could have heightened the stakes. The original Wickham was so evil, so awful, that Darcy was as elevated by his magnanimity toward such a depraved character as Wickham was debased by his depravity. Replacing Wickham are two characters, only one of which, Wick, could be considered a villain at all. And so diminished from the devilish original is Wick that the feeling from when Liz renounces her affection toward him is rather more like exhaustion than satisfaction.

There are a few other verbal missteps (graciously and gracefully seem to be confused at one point), and the dialogue is variously too casual (“Does he have a fake penis?”) and too stiff, even for a character such as Darcy (“Yes, it was clear that night that I’d done something to displease you.”).[6] And in this modern age of autocorrect, I found the text messages insufferable (“Great getting to know u, u r really special person.”). Ms. Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep,[7] seemed more uniform and believable in its dialogue, though I admit I am not likely the best arbiter of fidelity to the speech habits of teenage prep school students.

Eligible is part of the Austen Project, which has also updated Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma. While I take no qualms with the intent of the project, I do lament for what could have been. It is not that Eligible was a bad or boring book. After all, I read it in 5 hours (and then wrote this review) when God knows that I had more urgent work that I could’ve been doing. Rather, one can’t help but feel that there was some non-trivial amount of potential left on the table that could’ve been extracted with just a bit more editing and a bit more time. Nevertheless, I would recommend Eligible to any Austenite at the law school who has some time this summer or has nothing better to do during Reading Week.

3/5

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 512 pp.

Jim An is a 1L. He is a fan of each of Ms. Austen’s novels (except Sense and Sensibility, which was boring).


[1] And if it’s in the public domain, all the better.

[2] Also, I won our Bachelor fantasy league.

[3] Many people consider Skyline a tort to your innards. I think it’s actually pretty good. I recommend the four-way with beans.

[4] An overrated education if there ever was one, amirite?

[5] The U.S.C. might have fewer.

[6] See also, “How selfish you all are, doing what you like without regard to how it reflects on our family name.”

[7] An entertaining and highly recommended novel.

Jim An is the editor-in-chief of The Harvard Law Record and a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.

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