Sunday, 3 April 2016

"Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld



Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice
I was desperate to get my hands on an advanced copy of this book as having read and enjoyed "The American Wife" (as part of a Book Group read which worked really well) and "Sisterland", Sittenfeld is now an author for whom I keep a look out. After finishing this, I have ordered "Prep", her debut novel, to catch up with the rest of her back catalogue.

This is a clever, affectionate retelling of Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." I have read a few of "The Austen Project" novels and haven't really enjoyed them but Sittenfeld's contribution is a real success; her witty and entertaining reimagining of the classic tale is thoroughly enjoyable.

Sittenfeld has deftly adapted the story to suit a contemporary setting and relocates the family to Cincinnati. She adapts one of the most famous and most quoted opening sentences of our time, the need for Mrs Bennet to get her five daughters married, by adding the pressure of ticking biological clocks and the different definitions of family and motherhood in our society. As Mrs Bennet informs us, "It is not as easy for a woman in her forties to give birth as the media have you believe...Phyllis and Bob's daughter ...ended up with little Ying from Shanghai." It is great to see Sittenfeld retains all of Mrs Bennet's cringing prejudice! Her obsession with society is cunningly represented by her heavy involvement with local charities and such pressing duties such as producing napkins with the charity's insignia - jobs you can't possibly "pass off in mid stream" however serious your husband's recent heart surgery has been! I loved Mrs Bennet's observation that the only reason Liz's friend Charlotte remains unmarried is because she needs to go on a diet whereas her own daughters possessed "no discernible physical or personal flaws and therefore there were no clear means of remediation." One thing I think other authors have struggled with when attempting to update a classic novel is how to manage the themes of social etiquette, structure and class which dominate and underpin these stories but are quite alien from our more fluid society. In "Eligible" this is achieved with real skill and Sittenfeld has effectively replaced the concerns of single women in the 19th century with those of the new millennium.

The relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet is also captured well. Mr Bennet is appropriately bored and exasperated by his daughters and their lack of independence, responding to Mrs Bennet's anxiousness that they may never be grandparents with "plenty of men don't want children, I'm still not sure that I do." And later, when questioned by his consultant whether he is in any pain, he replies "only that caused by my children." His dry, sardonic humour is so familiar and recognisable it could have been penned by Austen herself! He was definitely my favourite character.

The sibling rivalry is also authentic; Lydia is unkind and prickly, Mary begins work on her third degree, stoically bearing the constant taunting from Lydia and Kitty. Lydia and Kitty drift unsuccessfully from various jobs in designer shops and various flat shares that still require complete reliance on their father's financial backing and frequently end under rather dramatic circumstances. They spend their leisure time at the gym honing their fitness and prioritise any investment in their appearance. At nearly 40, yoga teacher Jane, quiet and more naive, is desperate to become pregnant whether with a partner or through an artificial procedure. There is a sense that all the girls are not truly fulfilling their potential and have been cosseted by their parents, privileged education and upbringing. The family is endearingly chaotic - as Liz says, "hatefully charming!" They are colourful, vivid and amusing. They are very comfortably and believably established in their modern, American reimagining!

Liz, a writer for a popular woman's magazine with an apartment in New York, is more thoughtful and objective in her views of her sisters - remaining her father's favourite and privy to his confidences. Liz is not always likeable; she can be aloof, self righteous and has a slightly caustic tongue but actually this is very candid portrayal of her personality and Austen would approve! Liz has to overcome her prejudice, which is as much at fault as Darcy's, and also her pride which has created so much tension and drama within the plot. I like that she is called "Liz" as I thought this made her a little more serious and created a sense that she was more mature than her energetic and obnoxious youngest siblings. She is appropriately embarrassed by them and reflects, "her sisters' vulgarity was not a surprise....Kitty and Lydia were always themselves and she found this appalling and admirable..."

Fitzwilliam Darcy is an equally fantastic reimagining. During his first interaction with Liz she remarks: "So he had gone to Harvard Medical School, so he was a neurosurgeon, neither fact gave him cart blanche to be rude." Sittenfeld captures his personality perfectly with humour and originality. His relationship with Liz is well executed and their misunderstandings handled with light humour and heeding to all the rules of a successful romantic comedy.

I enjoyed trying to anticipate how Sittenfeld was going to handle the most famous events and conversations from the original novel and found myself smiling with respect and admiration for her ingenious imagination. Mr Bennet's financial situation collapses due to their lack of health insurance and a sudden flurry of huge medical bills following his heart surgery. Jane is not confined to the Bingley's with a cold but instead bound to a hospital bed in the ER department under the service of Doctors Darcy and Bingley themselves. Sittenfeld has transposed events so well with very fitting and appropriate updates. The transgender storyline is also very contemporary and Darcy and Liz's physical relationship also reflects modern lifestyle and attitudes to relationships and sex. The role of the reality TV show "Eligible" and it's impact on the characters and the story line works really well and again, reflects the interests and conversations of the younger generation as well as the role of celebrity and media in the modern world. If "Hello" magazine and "Through the Keyhole" had existed in Austen's day, they would definitely have visited the Bingley's and Darcy's -and Mrs Bennet would have been able to scour the pages of "Heat" magazine to gleam information regarding the marital status of all the eligible men in town!

This novel is not contrived. You do not need any knowledge of Austen or "Pride and Prejudice" to enjoy this read. It is a hugely enjoyable light, chick lit read. If Austen was writing today, it is exactly what she would be writing and she would be sharing the best seller shelves with the likes of Liane Moriarty, Sophie Kinsella, Cecelia Ahern and Marian Keyes.

Sittenfeld captures Austen's irony, wit and humour uncannily well. Despite giving the appearance of a light popular fiction read, this actually shows a real affinity, insight and deep understanding of Austen's work, concerns and characterisations. The chapters are incredibly short and some are mere segments - like snatched conversations and glimpses - which helps keep the story focussed and well paced, giving the "classic-phobe"reader a sense that this is the edited highlights of the original story when in fact it isn't. It also keeps the varying sub plots and story lines clear and easy to follow. Sittenfeld is good at selecting which characters are staying centre stage and which can be kept more in the sidelines. It is rather different from her previous novels and shows her versatility and talent as a writer.

It would make a great film! The characters are all so vividly portrayed that I'm sure any actor would relish the chance to play them and the plot would easily compete against the other Romantic Comedies currently on screen. It would introduce a whole new audience to Austen without them even realising! However, I will leave you with Mrs Bennet's closing reflections which neatly epitomise so much of the both her and the novel:

"I've never been a TV watcher," Mrs Bennet said and, whether or not anyone else believed her, it was abundantly clear that she believed herself, she spoke with confidence and pleasure. She said, "I've always preferred a good book." 

I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Chick Lit, Popular Fiction and Jane Austen.

Thanks so much to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair review. It was a real pleasure to review this book.

American Wife
In the year 2000, in the closest election in American history, Alice Blackwell's husband becomes president of the United States. Their time in the White House proves to be heady, tumultuous, and controversial. But it is Alice's own story - that of a kind, bookish, only child born in the 1940s Midwest who comes to inhabit a life of dizzying wealth and power - that is itself remarkable. In Alice Blackwell, Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is not a novel about politics. It is a gorgeously written novel that weaves race, class, fate and wealth into a brilliant tapestry. It is a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare. (Goodreads)

Sisterland

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them. Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today. (Goodreads)

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