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Series: The Austen Project

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – Review

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – ReviewEligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Series: The Austen Project #4
Also in this series: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Length: 13 hrs and 21 mins
Genres: Contemporary, Classics
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Evelynne's rating: one-half-stars

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.


Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermidNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Series: The Austen Project #2
Also in this series: Sense and Sensibility, Eligible
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Jane Collingwood
Length: 8 hrs and 54 mins
Genres: Classics, Contemporary
Buy from AmazoniTunesAudible
Evelynne's rating: four-half-stars

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is the second in The Austen Project series of novels which are modern retellings by contemporary authors of Jane Austen’s classics.  Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have the baggage of my knowledge and love of the original as I had with the first, I much preferred this second outing to Joanna Trollope’s updating of Sense and Sensibility.  Austen’s original story of Northanger Abbey tells the story of a sheltered young girl whose love of gothic novels leads her to make some very strange assumptions about the family of the young man she meets while visiting Bath.  During the novel she learns to separate fiction from reality and to develop a better understanding of human motivations.

What I liked

The updating.  I felt McDermid did a much better job than Trollope of bringing Austen’s characters into the 21st century.  They felt modern and fresh and their motivations seemed in line with a modern teenager or young person.  I could easily imagine sitting down to coffee with Cat and Ellie to discuss the latest novel.  And as evidenced by John Thorpe and Frederick Tilney, men who are too full of self-importance to consider the wishes of the women they are with are obnoxious in any century.  

As well as the characters, McDermid has done sterling work in updating the setting.  Transforming Bath into Edinburgh mid Festival worked incredibly well.  In their respective eras, both cities represent a cultural hotspot and a chance for our sheltered heroine to move into a wider world and social circle.  The Festival also allows McDermid to bring in events like dance lessons and a ball without their seeming too much out of place.

Cultural and social media integration.  This was something that was also better done in Northanger Abbey than in Sense and Sensibility.  Social media such as Facebook, email, texts and Twitter are an integral part of our characters’ lives and are used to drive the plot on in many cases.  The updating of the gothic novels much beloved by Austen’s heroine to Twilight and other contemporary vampire novels also works very well.

The narration.  Narration for Northanger Abbey is done by Jane Collingwood and was excellent.  Being a Scot I did appreciate her attempt at a Scots accent for the Scottish characters in the novel.  In particular she brings across Cat’s good nature and John Thorpe’s horribleness perfectly.  Here’s a sample:

What I didn’t like

Bella’s “voice”.  The way this character spoke really irritated me.  I’m referring to her word choice “totes,” “BFF”, not the narration.  On the other hand, the character is supposed to be superficial so maybe McDermid’s done her job too well.

Motivations.  In Austen’s original I assume money was a strong motivating factor in the relationship choices made by the characters.  In McDermid’s updating, at some points it seems finances are a contributing factor, and at other times not.  it just didn’t seem clear.

All in all I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey and gave it four stars out of five.

 buy from Amazon, iTunes, Audible, eBooks.com


Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna TrollopeSense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope
Series: The Austen Project #1
Also in this series: Northanger Abbey, Eligible
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Kate Reading
Length: 10 hrs and 10 mins
Genres: Classics, Women's Lit
Buy from AmazonKoboAudible
Evelynne's rating: three-stars

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope is the first in The Austen Project series of books in which contemporary writers rework Austen’s classics to bring them into the modern day.

In a world without the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved and Clueless, Trollope’s updating of Sense and Sensibility might appear fresh and fun.  In comparison to these other modernisations, however, it comes across as unimaginative and safe.  Too often it appears Trollope has simply transposed the characters and situations from Regency England to the modern day without using more up to date equivalents.  A few references to Facebook and Twitter don’t make a modern adaption.  In all fairness, perhaps Trollope was given a tight brief by HarperCollins to keep it close to the original.  

What I liked 

Faithful to Austen’s characters. Trollope stayed true to Austen’s characters.  Elinor is still the level head of the family, Marianne is still a hopeless romantic, Willoughby is still a cad.  The relationships between them remained true to the original – the interactions between the characters still follow the same themes.  The characters follow the same development arcs.  It’s clear Trollope understands the motivations of her characters and the main themes of the original.  

Timeless story and themes.  The conflict of head vs.heart is universal and is beautifully described by Austen.  Trollope brought this across to the modernisation very well.

The narration.  Kate Reading was the narrator for this, which is one reason I bought it also from Audible.  Kate is one of my favourite narrators, and she didn’t disappoint here.  With Kate you get a sense of the character just from the voices she uses.  Here’s a sample

What I didn’t like

Characters transposed not reimagined.  While it’s true that the characters are true to their Austen versions, they should have been updated more to reflect the world in which they were living.  In our 21st century, women of Elinor’s and Marianne’s ages cannot and should not expect to have a man support them – a major focus at their age should be how they are going to support themselves and pay their bills in future.  I didn’t feel that was adequately reflected in this modernisation.  I mean, what the heck does Marianne DO all day other than moon around over Willoughby?

Out of date settings. Trollope retained the grand estates – Norland Park,  Delaford,  Allenham – and even some servants.  I felt this made the book somewhat harder for a modern readership to relate to. Other modern Austen adaptations have successfully updated the grand estates to large corporations with no ill effects to the themes of the books.

Modern references for references’ sake.  There are several references to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, mobile phones etc scattered throughout the book, yet none of them are used to progress the story in any way.  That feels rather unrealistic in our always-online modern world.  For example, it would have been far fresher – and would not have harmed the theme in any way – for Elinor to have learned about Lucy Steele’s marriage from her Facebook profile or a tweet. 

All in all, Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility was an OK read, but lacking in creativity and imagination.  I gave it three stars out of five.

 buy from Amazon, iTunes, Audible


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