Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Indeed, Jasper's sole flaw, in Liz's opinion, apart from his girlfriend, was that he wore a gold ring from Stanford University, his alma mater; Lis did not care for either jewelry on men or academic ostentatiousness. But she actually was glad to have identified the one thing about Jasper she'd change, because it was similar to realizing what you'd forgotten to take on a trip, and if it were only perfume, as opposed to your driver's license, you were relieved. 
Sittenfeld wrote Eligible as part of the Austen Project, a series of modern retellings of Austen classics by contemporary authors. Eligible is an updated Pride and Prejudice, and, despite being based on an oft re-told Austen novel, it was exciting and fresh enough that I read it through in almost one sitting, including straight through two meals.

The novel takes its title from a Bachelor style show whose former star, Chip Bingley, has moved to Cincinnati to resume his career in medicine just as Liz and Jane Bennet come home from New York City to care for their aging father. At a barbecue, the Bennet sisters meet Chip (sparks fly between him and Jane) and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. The story proceeds predictably from there (with an entertaining, reality show twist at the end), but even though I knew exactly who everyone would end up with, I still couldn't put it down. Just as with Austen's novel, the Bennet sisters are unevenly portrayed--Liz and Jane have depth and substance; Kitty, Lydia, and Mary are one dimensional caricatures of themselves. Sittenfeld does sisters well, so the relationships, especially the more difficult ones, are satisfyingly written, but I was hoping for a little more, especially from Mary, the reclusive nerd whose biggest scandal is that she (spoiler alert) secretly bowls in a league every Tuesday.

Jasper, Eligible's George Wickham, is pretty awful right from the start (more obviously so than I remember Wickham being), and he makes Liz a little less credible. She falls for every trick in the book, and even though the ultimate deception isn't revealed until later, it's clear from the get-go to all the rest of us that she's being strung along. Liz's terrible taste in men is balanced out by her wry observations of her dysfunctional family, especially her sisters:
About a year before, Kitty and Lydia had embraced CrossFit, the intense strength and conditioning regimen that involved weight lifting, kettle bells, battle ropes, obscure acronyms, the eschewal of most foods other than meat, and a derisive attitude toward the weak and unenlightened masses who still believed that jogging was a sufficient workout and a bagel was an acceptable breakfast. Naturally, all Bennets except Kitty and Lydia were among these masses. 
This wasn't the most cerebral book I've read this year, but it was really fun. Sittenfeld carefully brings even the most peripheral characters into the modern age, and I loved rediscovering them in their new setting. Sittenfeld has to go a little farther to titillate her 21st century audience (the updated Darcy and Liz also have "hate sex," one of the sisters falls for a trans man, and Jasper's scandal goes a few steps further than Wickhams), but it never felt ridiculous or overblown. If you're an Austen fan who can handle some liberties being taken with a classic, read it!

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