Does the world really need another retelling of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?
Recently listened to Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE, which proudly announces itself, on the cover, as a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice. This strikes me as something the book is unduly proud of. It hits the notes of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in such a straightforward way, almost as if it feels there’d be some punishment if it deviated too much from the story.
The book is about five sisters, Jane, Liz, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, who are the daughters of a Cincinnati blue blood, Mr. Bennett, who has run through his fortune and whose wife, Mrs. Bennett, becomes obsessed with the idea of marrying off her eldest daughter, Jane, to a newly-arrived doctor, and reality TV star, Chip Bingley.
I enjoyed the book. I liked Sittenfeld’s debut, PREP, and I enjoyed PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as well. But throughout the novel I kept asking myself, “Why?”
For what reason does this exist? The characters are so close to what they were in Pride. Mr. Bennett is sarcastic and long-suffering, but fundamentally ineffectual. Mrs. Bennett is silly and frivolous. Liz is moralistic. Kitty and Lydia are shallow. Mr. Darcy, who’s another doctor at the nearby hospital, is principled but ungracious. It’s all the same! So why bother with it?
Sittenfeld is a talented and observant writer, and it was fun to see her map these characters to modern times. Liz, in particular, benefited from the juxtaposition. In PRIDE, Liz thought well of herself but had no reason to. She had sense, but she was still living the same shallow life as her sisters, because nothing else existed for women of her time and class.
In ELIGIBLE, Liz doesn’t get off quite so easily. Although she’s the only sister to support herself (as the writer for a women’s magazine, clearly based on Ms., in New York), there is a certain frivolity and aimlessness to her. And it’s not like those qualities aren’t present in the original source material. Liz was always the witty one. She was always the person who enjoyed the repartee at parties while pretending not to enjoy it. After all, if it wasn’t for that, Wickham could never have been a draw for her. But in Pride and Prejudice, the structure of society forced her into the role of society girl. Here that’s not the case. She could reject all of that, but she doesn’t. Because of that this version of Pride and Prejudice becomes a more personal story: it’s about her growth into a belated adulthood.
In fact, the best part of the book is the middle, when the story morphs suddenly into Cold Comfort Farm. Liz, realizing her family is badly in debt, starts to rapidly fix up the lives of her sisters: pairing off some and forcing others to get real work. Romance falls almost by the wayside as she takes everybody reluctantly to task. I can’t remember if this is part of the original source material, but if it is I’ve completely forgotten about it.
Ultimately, the book was really…fun? I’ve been reading a lot of light domestic fiction lately, and this one felt a lot more lively than most. The characters were better defined and more humorous. But I hesitate to give the book a pass for that, since a part of me wonders if I mightn’t have been better off simply rereading Pride and Prejudice.