I’ve had Eligible on my bookshelf since I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival. What mainly attracted me to the book was its quirky cover and I bought it without paying much attention to the blurb, sometimes this works and sometimes it just doesn’t! What I didn’t realise when I bought the book, was that it is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It is part of the Austen project which is a HarperCollins series which pairs bestselling novelists with Jane Austen novels. I have loved all of the novels so far, but retellings do always make me nervous. There is a very fine line between changing the book to make it something new and exciting, without getting rid of its essence, the very thing that makes the novel so well loved.
Eligible begins as a warm, fast paced novel with a unique authorial voice. While the other novels in the series have remained British, Eligible has been moved to Cincinnati and the family has been thoroughly modernised. I know after some research that there had been much talk on social media about Sittenfeld’s desire to add more drama to the project and to change things up. For the first third of the novel this is well done, the Bennett sisters are older to make the drama surrounding their singledom more believable, Jane desperately wants to be a mother and is considering some modern options, while Elizabeth never wants to have children. She is a career focused journalist. All of the Bennett women have been brought home when Mr Bennett is taken ill, Mary, Kitty and Lydia all still live at home, don’t work and are generally very selfish and unlikable.
So far, so good.
Mr Bingley was a bit of a surprise, a reality TV star who has appeared on a programme which was supposed to find him a girlfriend, he is unlikeable and bland. His sister insisted he go on the programme, even though he is a doctor and thought Mr Bingley appears as a bit of a shadow of an actual character. Mr Darcy meanwhile is as standoffish as in the original, however he is a surgeon and in the modern setting his rudeness doesn’t feel as well explained by the end.
To begin with the modern touches were a little surprising but the really lovely narrative tone and description made up for this. But then, Sittenfelds determination to be as modern as possible took over. It seemed that plausibility wasn’t an issue, instead the aim was to shock the reader. As many modern controversies are packed into the pages of Eligible as possible, until the characters become unrecognisable. From eating disorders and sperm donors to transgender boyfriends and one night stands, shopping addictions, reality television and technology entrepreneurs. I just don’t understand why Sittenfeld couldn’t have picked one or two of these and done them well, made them realistic and still fit with the original narrative in a way that wasn’t jarring. At one point I literally thought ‘really?’ because there was ANOTHER plot twist. It all felt far too soap opera and not enough Austen.
This has been my least favourite of the Austen Project novels. I struggled to finish reading and was really disappointed because the cover looked so lovely and I love Austen novels so much. I know everyone won’t agree with me, but for me this was just tying too hard to be controversial.
If you’ve read Eligible I’d love to know what you think, did the novel annoy you as much as it did me or did you love the modern take?