Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld“Pride and Prejudice” is probably the most emulated novel in English literature.  Because of this, “Eligible”, the modern retelling by Curtis Sittenfeld has lots of competition.

The novel takes place in present-day Cincinnati, Ohio with star-crossed lovers Fitzwilliam Darcy as a neurosurgeon and Elizabeth Bingley as a magazine writer newly returned to her hometown from New York to act as caregiver to her aging parents.  Elizabeth Bingley’s ill-suited parents are not an impoverished English clergyman and his silly wife, but aging suburban country-club members living on inherited wealth with an abundance of underemployed daughters to launch in the world.

One daughter is a perennial student, another is contemplating unwed motherhood at an advanced age, a third is being courted by a much older man, and the most scandalous youngest daughter has eloped with her transgender boss from the fitness center where they both work.

Sittenfeld deftly pays homage to details from the original English classic including reference to a marriage of convenience between Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas, and one of Elizabeth’s awkward and unattractive relatives.  The groom, Elizabeth’s male cousin, has great wealth because of his technological savvy, but remains a pompous “computer geek” in the social arena.

Also figuring prominently is Fitzwilliam Darcy’s best male friend and fellow physician, Chip Bingley.  Bingley is a contestant on a popular reality television show known as “Eligible”, a veiled counterpart to “dating game” shows in which the primary contestant auditions marriageable mates on the air.  Bingley is the romantic interest for Elizabeth Bingley’s elder sister, Jane, a fitness instructor who aspires to parenthood despite her single status and advancing age.

Elizabeth Bennett herself is an enigma in this retelling in that the philandering Jasper Wickham of the original is not her little sister’s seducer, but is transformed into Elizabeth’s lukewarm married boyfriend.   Wickham orbits Elizabeth’s life over a long period of years as love interest and coworker, but he never achieves the status of full-blown villain—just that of fading self-centered fraternity boy.

I find this updated retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” very clever, but not nearly as satisfying as the original.  The retelling hinges heavily on plot artifice, whereas Jane Austen’s original novel is the quintessential romantic, character-driven, “comedy of manners”.  The plotting in “Eligible” is fairly deft, but the characterization and dialogue fall short of expectation.

The retelling is recommended for fans of the original as a skillful parody based on current social ills.  For example, Elizabeth Bennet’s mother is a confirmed shopaholic who believes in “retail therapy” and Mr. Darcy’s impressionable younger sister is an anorexic who displays symptoms of being star-struck by the VIPs that Elizabeth Bennett interviews as a journalist.

“Eligible” is author Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel.  She’s currently a magazine contributor for a number of U.S. publications and is a native of the Cincinnati area where “Eligible” is set.

By Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library.  She can be reached at lkobrin@alamancelibraries.org or (336) 229-3588.