Sunday, 21 August 2016

Book review: 'Eligible' a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld

Edit: This was going to be a mini review but I'm on a train for 5 hours and I guess I ended up having more to say than I planned. Sorry.

I had come across this in a "books to read this summer" article months ago and immediately pre-ordered it on the cheap for my kindle.  I am a sucker for P&P fan-fictions (that's all any of the re-writings are) and this one did not disappoint me. - I do not go into these with high expectations, it must be noted.

I've not read the official reviews for this one, though when I put the title and author into google, the headlines tell me that it's been relatively well-received in some circles(Good Reads etc.) and poorly received in others (The Guardian).  So really, I think it's another one of those, "down to the reader to decide" books. I don't think my BFF would enjoy it, for example.

Well, I have decided: It is not the worst version you can read out there.

I have read Mr Darcy's Diary (Maya Slater), Mr Darcy: Vampyr (the incorrigable Amanda Grange) and the oddly-better-on-screen, Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D James). I started Pride and Prejudice: Zombies but just... no. No. It's not my thing. I think I've read another, but right this second, I can't think of it.

This one is different to the others in that a) it's not a prequel or sequen and b) it 100% is set outside of Regency England: the majority of the story takes place in Cincinatti, Ohio. Oh, yes.

I have not read Sittenfeld's other books, and I can't say for sure that I ever will, however this is the general impression I got of her, from the book:  Huge P&P fan having fun writing and doing her best to not deviate too far from the original plot, though she had to give up part way through when certain elements simply did not work in our century.

And that is fine. I am not going to slate her - hell, she's done better than I have at writing a fan-fic that actually ends!  That said, it's not without many faults, though that doesn't mean it has to distract from reading it when you're on the train for 5 hours, say.

So anyway, the book review!


It retains the class girl meets boy, each displeased with the other but eventually the more they get to know each other, the more they are drawn together and realise each was as pig-headed as the other and get hitched. They have the snobby meddling friends, the crass family background, the classist issues, gender issues and the social commentary of contempory lifestyles.

Pretty much Jane Austen in principal - that, apart from the characterisation, is where I draw the line at comparisons. I do not think that it is fair to compare the work to Austen's when it is not directly related or tagged on to the original in the way that Mr Darcy's Diary (Wrong year historically and characterisation is off), Mr Darcy: Vampyre (Ignored writing style completely but hey it's a fantasy fic) and Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D. James tried really hard to maintain Austen's style while incorporating her own Mystery genre and did a surprisingly good job)are, being sequels or prequels.  This is a modern reworking and does not need to have Austenisms in it.  That said, every so often, Sittenfeld threw in reference to "good breeding" and loads of little Easter Eggs via character names and fictional places.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ Spoilers begin here ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~* ~

Characterisation - Bennets, then Bingleys, Georgiana D, Lady Catherine, Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas, Mr Wickham and then Mr Darcy

Elizabeth "Liz" Bennet"
Do not expect to like her as a person in the way one did when reading P&P.  She comes off pretty badly in this - not that I hated her by the end, but I remember thinking quite a few times that I disliked her. She is not without blame though - not when you compare her to the rest of her family and the stuff she has to deal with emotionally and intellectually.  I rather enjoyed her relationship with this version's Wickham, "Jasper Wick".  I felt that in the modern setting, it was actually spot on - he is  that sort of flakey pillock and even P.D James, in Death Comes to Pemberley extended his characterisation to be a real flake and philanderer.  More on him later.

Liz Bennet is a successful writer for a magazine. At 38 she is certain she does not want children but does wish she were married to Wick - a man who captured her affection years before but had been stringing her along. It's painful but true and not actually unlike their intial flirtatious relationship in the original.   She does however, in this version, not stand up to the original Elizabeth. She is almost as coarse as her sisters. She is judgemental and she is actually quite bitchy.  She does look after her family though and will do her duty as far as being a sister and daughter goes. She is independent and she does love her sister Jane very much and get on with her father, but other than that - she doesn't really come across the same.

She is pretty dislikable at many points in the story.  Although there are moments when she is trying to communicate without sarcasm and "wit" with her sisters, the only differentiation in dialogue the Bennets all have are that Lydia and Kitty's language and humour is less politically correct and more crass and Jane's dialogue is simply calmer and less witty.

Although she does her best to read up on Transgender issues upon Lydia's elopement to Ham, (The concentrated nice side of Wickham's original characterisation) Liz does very little to confront her youngest siblings's language and attitudes before that, particularly when they are being unkind to Mary. In fact, she passively joins in.

She does have her good points though - she realises when she has been wrong and we do get to more openly explore the workings of someone who regrets everything she has said in the past or the instant cringe we get when something we think comes out way differently in our mouths - we don't really get to see much of that in the original until Elizabeth reads the letter from Mr Darcy.

Jane Bennet

I rather enjoyed the idea of Jane being a single, New York-living Yoga instructor.  I think that is an update that works. She is still quiet, she is still pretty and she still falls in love with Mr Bingley. Since money and social backgrounds aren't particularly huge barriers these days, the story needed a bit of a boost with the whole "Bingley goes away for months and then re-enters to propose" plotline. Again, given the way things are now, it worked: Jane, pushing 40, was desperate to be a mother, so she took things into her own hands (You go, girl!) and started IUI treatment. Unfortunately, her meeting Bingley was all terrible timing and when it comes out that she's pregnant, it had been going on a little too long for him not to be shocked and hurt that she hadn't mentioned she'd been receieving monthly dosages of anonymous sperm donations.

She is as quiet, pensive and - is passive the right word? - as the original Miss Bennet.  She's also pretty much the only likeable character in the family.  Except maybe Kitty - I couldn't help but like her, which is odd, since I disliked her in the original and film adaptations. Hm.

Lydia and Kitty Bennet

They are 25 and 26 respectively and a lot is made of their comparative youngness to Liz and Jane, who are 38 and 39.  Lydia is young and blonde and vivacious, though bad-manners. Kitty pretty much follows in her footsteps.  They are Crossfit and Paleo-diet addicts and do naff all to earn a living or make their own way in the world.  They are fashionable moochers.  Pretty much the best way to explain away two girls over 22 still living with their parents.

They are always using base humour and language and picking on people who do not match their way of living, particularly their older sister Mary.  They were unkind and gossipy in the original but not to that extent.

Kitty is slightly less bad than Lydia, but as the follower, she doesn't say or do anything to stop her.

Lydia remains a kept woman her whole life, eloping with her CrossFit's gym owner, Hamilton "Ham" Ryan.  Not that scandelous. Except it's very established by that point that Mr and particularly Mrs Bennet are Republicans and homophobic and racist. The "scandal" is that Ham comes out to them as ftm transsexual, which Mrs Bennet simply can not cope with, so they elope to Chicago.

Kitty on the other hand demonstrates a skill and almost passion for nail art - something that Liz suggests she create a career out of.  When forced to live independently, Kitty actually moves in with Mary and towards the end of the story, Liz receives an email from Kitty that indicates she has applied for a cosmetologist course.  In the original, post-Lydia's marriage, Kitty is shown to mature more when spending time with Maria Lucas, but not much else - this allows Kitty that same level of maturity gain.

Mary Bennet

A loner, a "scholar" - she has several degrees online and is working towards a Masters in Psychology - and a bit of a bitch, though I suspect it's entirely down to the fact that her whole family is horrendous. She is just as lazy and can be just as crude as her younger sisters,  feeling the need neither to leave the nest, nor contribute towards its upkeep.  Liz muses that Mary is "proof that someone can be ugly and unpleasant" - well, duh. Not particularly a deep nor stellar observation and I don't feel it's one that she would have made in the original.

Mary puts up with being asked whether she is a lesbian throughout the book, with abuse hurled at her by Lydia a lot. Her mother is not exactly a great parent and she doesn't really interract with her father much. She is apparently a feminist - constantly disapproving of some activity or other on the grounds that it's degrading to women or something - and is very anti-social.   She has some air of mystery though - she has a standing engagement every Tuesday evening, and nobody knows where she goes or what she does.

It later transpires she's part of a bowling league.  There is also a random post-chapter which explains that Mary has tried relationships at university but didn't much care for them. She's happier "looking after herself" and grooming herself to meet "society's basic standards". She doesn't feel the need to make others happy or to have others make her happy. All she wants is to bowl once a week and she loves it.  Pretty much it.

She does however occasionally back Liz up as a voice of reason - not necessarily to help Liz, but because she can see more clearly than her self-absorbed sisters and mother.

Mr Fred Bennet and Mrs Sally Bennet 

The reason that Liz and Jane are back in Cincinatti in order to meet Darcy and Bingley at all is that Fred has had a heart attack and required an operation. This is the foundation of their monetary troubles as nobody but Liz and Jane had health insurance - which works well in modern America.

They live in a house build in the early 1900s, that has been passed down. They belong to a social club. His career was simply moving the family money around and making money out of money - though he clearly did a bad job of it in the end. It does not help that Sally is a shopaholic, to the point that she has dozens of unopened mail order boxes of houseware that nobody really needed. "I love a good bargain".

As a married couple, the dynamics are the same as the originals - she is a self-centred, social-climbing drama queen and he is fed up with her and their younger daughters' shenanigans.

He has many similar-style one-liners and his rapport with Liz is similar - though it is Liz who has to give him the kick up the backside he needs to sell the house in order to pay for his bills.

Sally is desperate to have at least one of her daughters married and is really backward thinking. She is small-minded, which is reflective of quite a lot of middle and upper class republicans of a certain age. She is not racist enough to call a POC something horrendous to their face, but she doesn't socialise with them, only hires them, and even then it's uncomfortable for her. She is uncomfortable around LGBT issues, referring to Jane's gay friends as "Those Ladies" and the only way for her to get her head around Ham's gender reassignment was to consider it as him having a "birth defect" which was corrected, like a cleft palate.  (At least one can follow the logic, I suppose)

The reason Liz and Jane spend so much time at their parental home post-Fred's operation is that Sally has a "important luncheon" that she is hosting and has no time to look after her husband.

Both parents are irresponsible and selfish in their own way - ignoring doctor's advice and allowing their house to get into a state of disrepair, making it more difficult to sell for a decent sum of money.

There are funny moments with these characters, particuarly in their interactions with each other or other members of the family, but there is less fondness for them and they feel less silly than obnoxious than the original couple.

Chip Bingley

A bit of a Fop but nice enough - he's a good looking single man, made famous by his sister suggesting he go onto the reality show, "Eligible".  He is a trained doctor that moves to Cincinatti to work at the E.R.  They meet through his boss, the Bennet's friend, Mr Lucas,

He and Jane hit it off almost immediately.

He's easily flapped though - when it comes out that Jane is pregnant (her mysterious collapse/illness in the original was a fever) of course, his typical male reaction is shock and horror that she is pregnant by someone else. He's easily persuaded to then go back to LA for an "Eligible" reunion shoot, quitting his job at the E.R and running away from the love of his life.

When he comes back though, he explains it was his uncertainty at wanting to be a practising doctor that was clouding his judgement towards her and once in LA he realised what a huge mistake he'd made.  He tells the producer about Jane and then she suggests that he and Jane marry in an Eligible special - the surreal part of the book, really, because it happens. Yes. Jane Bennet gets married on t.v. And it's not live.  A good narrative about the crap that goes on behind the scenes of reality shows though - how not-quite-scripted-but-certainly-cultivated a lot of interactions and relationships are. No wonder they don't turn out well in real life!

Oh well, they get married and he's happy to be the father of Adelaide, so that's nice, innit?

Caroline Bingley

Still a bitch in love with Darcy. Can't stand Liz. Can't stand her family. Doesn't mind Jane but wishes that it hadn't happened.

Not much updating done, tbh.

Georgiana Darcy

She is still younger and is a big fan of Liz - she reads the magazine she works for.  She never interracts with Wickham, so that storyline doesn't really exist. Instead, she is anorexic and is a worry for Darcy as she's been to many clinics around the country.  Her relationship with Liz is quite sweet though.

Kathy De Bourgh

A leading feminist that Liz gets to interview for her article. Really nice, actually, and says some of the nicest, wisest things in the book. An actual darling and very cool. Not related to Darcy in any way.

Cousin Willie and Charlotte Lucas

Mr Collins turns into an awkward, probably autistic, tech genius who is able to own his own place in the Silicone Valley. He visits and it's quite clear that he likes Liz as she politely puts up with his long monologues and takes him out and about as a tour guide and isn't unkind to him generally.
He is still seen as undesirable, and though only a step-cousin, this is one of the more clearly articulateable reasons that Liz gives for not wishing to marry him.

Charlotte is her old school friend, also unmarried and slightly overweight. She reaches out to Willie after Liz rebuffs him and after some online talking and phone calls, up sticks and moves out to California for him, which Liz can't quite understand.  In this way, her characterisation is similar to the original - she feels her clock ticking and sees that her chances with Willie are as good as with anybody else's.  After initial upset, which requires Liz to visit her and prescribe ear plugs (Willie snores horrendously), she decides that she wants to make their relationship work and the last we hear of her is Liz overhearing them having sex as she hurries off to deal with the Lydia scandal.

Jasper Wick

Charming, good looking and seems to care about Liz - he wants her in his life, anyway.  It is unfortunately not a healthy relationship - he is reliant on her for emotional reasons. She is his confidant, professional peer and advisor, relationship advisor and in all respects best friend.  She however wants something more - she loves him and although he frequently, in the past and present, tells her that he should really be with her, he never actually does it. He instead marries a woman and has a child, only to find that their relationship has run its course. Unfortunately, his grandmother-in-law would disown them if they divorced (she's Catholic), so they are having an open marriage. Which allows him to have sex with Liz, but without committing to her fully.

At first, she's alright with this, but when it transpires that he's also been sleeping with others (which comes after a disasterous meal with him and Jane, where she sees he can be an arse) and she finds out the real reason he was kicked out of Stanford, she finally realises that he is an absolute knob-end.

I really liked this version of Wickham, actually. I - and I don't know how many agree with me - believe genuinely that in the original, he was one of those who would flatter an attractive person's ego and make "connections" with them, all the time, only to disappear with someone slightly better comes along (like Miss King) and in the 21st Century that would definitely make him a Prig.

In the original, he ends up with Lydia (still not sure how or why) but I felt that Sittenfeld decided to split the Good and Bad Parts of Wickham and distill them into the characters of Jasper Wick and Ham Ryan.  Ham is a genuinely nice dude who also gets on very well with Liz and definitely treats Lydia better than Wickham would have done in the original - it's nice to think the original Wickham did have feelings for Lydia enough to marry her despite her lack of money... I guess.

I did, upon going through the Ham and Lydia storyline, keep expecting her to run off or sleep with Jasper - afterall, he visists Cincinatti, so it could have happened. I still feel that would hve sufficed as a catalyst for Liz's disillusion, but then I guess there wouldn't have been a scandal for Darcy to step in to help with.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

So named after some paternal great great great grandparent, Darcy is the only one bearing his full original name - though Sittenfeld decided his middle name should be Cornelius, which I think is hilarious.

He is seen by Liz as being stuck up and overheard slagging off Cincinatti women to Bingley at their first social gathering. It's all pretty play-by-play with the book.  Except that Liz is waaaaaaaay ruder and worse behaved towards him than in the original.

It all leads up to them having hate sex after she breaks up with Jasper Wick. For her, it's rebound sex and for him it's probably just nice to get an offer. They hook up a few times when they meet while running.  He is the first person she is able to confide to and during their run, they do their deeper-level chat and info sharing before heading back to his for sex (no cuddling allowed with hate sex).

When she is due to go back to NY, he realises he kinda loves her and goes to tell her - insulting her in a cringy way, which it turns out was his way of off-setting the dorky "I love you" feels he was feeling and went too far the wrong direction.  She is absolutely horrendous back, not just angry and on point as in the original.

They meet again at his ridiculous mansion in California, on Pemberley road, number 1896 or whatever year P&P is supposedly set!  Smooth, Sittenfeld, smooth.

There, he has that personality transplant - if you recall in the original, when she turns up at Pemberley, he is really nice and gracious and shows her and her aunt around.

In this case, it's her and Charlotte curiosity stalking him and then him happening to be there. He invites them over for dinner - with Willie and his parents as well.  They go round for a BBQ the next day and they play croquet.

Caroline is of course there and she is vile as usual.  Liz meets Georgie and they have a fine time. There is a moment in the kitchen that gets interrupted where Darcy is about to tell her that after she left town, he... we don't know what but we can speculate that he missed her and that life was rubbish for him.

They agree to meet for breakfast, but she has to cancel when they get there because of Lydia's elopement and her parents freaking out, which she is sure killed it for him as he acts pissy.

It is only after some misunderstanding and Caroline's bitchy meddling at Chip and Jane's wedding that Liz finally tells him how she feels and then proposes to him. Because why not? Everything else has been super progressive so far.

Darcy is described as being tall, handsome and self-important and snobby. He is a neurosurgeon and he isn't sure how to handle Liz's humour and direct way of speaking - a lot of which is just verbal diarrhea in my opinion.

His characterisation was pretty basic, but he is the truest represenation of the original characters in the book.  Hard to go wrong there, though, I guess.

So how was the book in general?

Honestly, it's not a work of art - the dialogue is pretty monotonous and can be stilted. My teacher-brain kicked into gear at times. There was a lot of "she said"s in there...  I know that the way we teach children to write is to expand their vocab and nobody actually writes books using synonyms instead of said all the time, but maybe I was being picky because of the format the kindle used. Made the "said"s too close together.

The plot is the classic "Will they, won't they?" and I was actually invested at points - it was quite clear when Sittenfeld was setting the groundwork to show that Liz and Darcy were compatible at all, perhaps because before then she hadn't really managed.  What I did like was how relatable their relationships were (Not so much the familial) - they were sex positive, had had previous relationships.. it was just that they weren't married, which is more of an institutional aim rather than a live or die situation (in its loosest terms) in Regency England.

The story telling, even if the plot is a bit odd at times, is quite witty and I did feel she was handling the idea of inverted snobbery as well as elitism quite well. Liz was quite definitely a snob. A pretty vile one, at that. Perhaps the horrible way they all treat each other is part of the commentary on the way people are these days. Who knows?  But there is still a stigma attached to women that don't marry or marry late, to women who have children late or don't want them at all and that is addressed subtly. It's great that Darcy and Liz don't want children and that it's mutual - that he was the one person she felt she could honestly tell. It was nice to read about someone who enjoyed children and babies but was relieved to give said children and babies back. I know more than one person who is not maternal in anyway and everytime it comes up regails me with some stupid comment they'd been told, all of which Liz mentions in the book.

The Bennets were characteratures of the crass socialite rich that we read about in the mags, or at least, that's how I was interpreting it.  They enjoy being rich and not having to do much and as a result are less useful to society than the people they are prejudiced against. They are usually the ones with poor money management and end up in financial trouble, not knowing how to go without or making real sacrifices in order to secure their futures. It took Jane and Liz (mostly Liz) to actively sort things out and think practically for them.

I'd probably end up reading it again - it was easy to read and I did have a few LOL moments because of phrases used or things that happened.  Pretty much, this book is a bit of a trash read, but it was enjoyable enough for me to get through it.

The last parts with Jane and Chip's wedding was bizarre, but hey, maybe if they'd had reality t.v. back then, Austen would have chosen it too!.... or not.

I rate this book a 3 out of 5 - Would read again  but not necessarily recommend it to die-hard fans or purists!

(Separate it from the original and it's not quite as bad, just another bizarre summer read)

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