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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

I first learned of Eligible not through a review, but an article defending the novel against a review; Waldman did such a good job selling the book, I had to read it myself.  And she's completely right -- Curtis Sittenfeld wrote a fun, compulsively readable update of Pride and Prejudice, similar to Clueless in its witty, contemporary retelling. 

What sometimes gets lost in the adaptations of and riffs on Pride and Prejudice is that the novel wasn't just about the couples; Austen used the romances to make a sharp critique of the world she lived in.  Sittenfeld, in updating the story, does not neglect that, and the novel is filled with clever and amusing insights into the concerns of a certain segment of 21st century America -- celebrity worship, consumerism, status-seeking, authenticity, sex, marriage, motherhood.  Of course the gossipy country society of Austen's time is replaced by reality shows.  Of course Darcy is a fancy-pants doctor, Liz is a writer, and Mary is a perpetual grad student.  Of course the Bennets are a upper middle class family, hit hard by the recession but struggling to hide it from their richer neighbors.

Sittenfeld also fleshes out some of the more minor characters, adding complexity to Lydia, Kitty, and the two Wickham stand-ins. She can be merciless in her dissection of the characters, but she never forgets their humanity.

There were some flaws; I can't believe Jane would ever agree to be on a reality show, and Charlotte's relationship with Cousin Willie deserved a bit more fleshing out, given that marriage is not now the economic necessity it has been in the past.  And while having both Liz and Darcy decide they never want children was interesting, having them each give a little lecture about it, hitting every major talking point, was awkwardly done.  But these are minor complaints, and I highly recommend Eligible to Austen fans and non-fans alike.

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