I wonder what it would be like to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (Random House, digital galley) without first having read Jane Austen’s classic. What to make of the Bennets and their five unmarried daughters transported from the English countryside of two centuries ago to a Tudor house in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood? Would it be just another chick-lit tale of family dysfunction, with late thirty-something Jane and Lizzy returning home from New York when their father has heart surgery and their shopaholic matchmaking mother can’t cope? Would you appreciate the humor of having flighty still-at-home Kitty and Lydia obsessed with Cross-Fit, or pontificating Mary taking online classes for her third master’s degree? Can you buy Chip Bingley as a former reality TV star, and his best bud Fitzwilliam Darcy as an uptight neurosurgeon? When Mr. Bennet tells Mary, “Oh, put a sock in it,” do you laugh?
Alas, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times, I’ll never know. I think Eligible could stand on its own as a comedy of manners, but its sparkle comes from the ways in which Sittenfeld chooses to update the tale so the familiar becomes fresh. I love that she’s set the story in her hometown of Cincinnati with its Grater’s ice cream and Skyline chili. Many of her choices are inspired — that stuffy Mr. Collins is now a nerdy — and wealthy — tech guru; that sweet yoga instructor Jane has been having secret IVF treatments because she wants a baby; that the daft Bennets don’t have health insurance so crushing medical debts are about to render them homeless. Other tweaks feel strained — that Mrs. Bennet is both a racist and a homophobe so Lizzy hires a gay, black real estate agent; that the cad Wickham has become two characters: Lizzy’s married lover Jasper Wick, and Lydia’s latest, hunky gym owner Ham; that “hate sex” leads to love. There’s plenty of wit here but not enough romance. Sometimes Sittenfeld seems to be having more fun than the reader, and the book’s charms fray at almost 500 pages.
Eligible is the fourth entry in the the Austen Project, which pairs each novel with a contemporary writer. I found Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility ho-hum, but I enjoyed Val McDermid’s satirical Northanger Abbey, with its young heroine fascinated by paranormal stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma had its moments but not as many as the movie Clueless. In Eligible’s “The Bachelor”-like TV show, a kiss on the lips means a contestant is still in the running, while a kiss on the cheek sends the girl home. I enjoyed Eligible’s company, but it’s a kiss on the cheek for me. I’m going back to the original.