Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is the fourth in the Austen Project of modern retellings of Jane Austen’s novels and attempts to bring her classic Pride and Prejudice into the 21st century. Having read the other three Austen adaptations, I was intrigued to see how Sittenfeld would update the story of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane and Bingley. From experience I know that Austen adaptations, when done well, can be wonderful. (check out The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube if you don’t believe me.)
I really, really wanted to like this book – I love Jane Austen, and the pre released teaser sample sounded excellent – but no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t sit well with me. In the interests of fairness, given how well known and beloved Pride and Prejudice has become, it was always going to be one of the trickier ones to adapt. Let me talk about what I liked first.
What I liked
The modernisation. Many things in the update worked surprisingly well. The transfer of the action from Hertfordshire to Cincinnati was seamless and gave a very similar flavour of the small town mentality that caused Darcy’s snobbish attitude. The Bennet family’s future being at risk because of the lack of a male heir is not something that would fit well with a modern tale, so Sittenfeld uses a more up to date threat which works in well. Surprisingly the whole reality TV show plotline adapts well and served to enhance both the story and the characters.
The narration. I listened to Eligible in audiobook format. Narration duties were undertaken by Cassandra Campbell who did a great job of narrating the tales of the Bennet sisters. I chose the book in audiobook format because of the sneak peek narration.
What I didn’t like
The chapter break up. The audiobook is 13 hours and 21 minutes long, so approximately 800 minutes. This is relatively short in terms of audiobooks. I believe the hard copy comes in at around 500 pages. There are over 180 chapters in the book. Let me say that again. One hundred and eighty chapters. This means that, on average, there is a new chapter roughly every four minutes. Some chapters last less than 40 seconds. Especially in the audiobook I found it extremely distracting and detrimental to my engagement in the story to have it broken up so frequently.
Character development. My biggest issue with Eligible was that I didn’t feel Sittenfeld accurately portrayed – or even at times understood – Austen’s wonderful characters and/or their journeys. It is fair to say that, perhaps her interpretation of Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia just isn’t the same as mine; however I would argue that they also differ from Austen’s.
To take Lydia first; while both Austen’s and Sittenfeld’s youngest Bennet sister is young, immature and, yes, does occasionally push the boundaries of propriety I have never perceived her as being downright crude and vulgar as she comes across in Eligible. Admittedly, I will never be able to read P&P with an Austen era mentality, so I could be wrong here. Secondly, Lydia’s story arc in Austen’s original has her family (and ultimately Darcy) having to step in to protect her from the consequences of an imprudent and ill considered decision. While it is not an easy task to come up with a modern storyline that has the same shock value and social repercussions that nineteeth century Lydia’s running off alone with a man would have, and I can see what Sittenfeld was trying to do, I personally disagree with her choice. At that point in the story I found myself thinking “What imprudent decision? What consequences?” Sittenfeld even has her Lydia try to sit down with her parents and discuss her decision before taking action and the impression I was left with was that it was a far more balanced and thought out decision than Austen’s Lydia would have made.
Jane’s character arc, too, wasn’t always given the service it should have. In my mind, in the original, Jane’s character flaw was that she wasn’t confident enough to express her feelings adequately to Bingley. This allowed Darcy to interfere in the relationship believing that she was not very strongly attached to Bingley. This is a flaw which she must overcome to achieve her happy ending. In Sittenfeld’s reworking, it’s Jane’s circumstances which force her to be more reserved about expressing her feelings, therefore no flaw, no character development.
Finally, we come to Elizabeth, the second oldest Bennet sister. My impression of Elizabeth from Austen’s original was that she is an intelligent, strong willed woman, who has a strong sense of self worth and who is not prepared to compromise that. Sittenfeld’s description of her Liz’s relationship with Jasper does not show a woman with a strong sense of self worth. Perhaps that’s Eligible Liz’s character arc, to regain that sense of self, but it’s not the arc of Austen’s character, and as such I didn’t feel it should have been part of the story, especially as Austen’s Elizabeth already has a strong character development arc in overcoming her prejudice of Darcy.
While there were some excellently written parts of Eligible, for me, it is the weakest of the Austen project books in terms of bringing Austen’s characters to life in a modern setting. I gave Eligible only 1.5 stars out of five.
If you want to see a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice done well, I recommend you rather take a look at The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube.