I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice. I’ll repeat that: I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice. Controversial as this fact may be, I have never been much of a fan of Jane Austen (or 19th century romantic fiction in general), although I did love Clueless. But I was curious when I heard that the latest novel by one of my favourite writers, Curtis Sittenfeld, was a contemporary retelling of Austen's classic love story, set in Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places.
My favourite of Sittenfeld’s novels is American Wife, whose protagonist is loosely based on former US First Lady Laura Bush, but Prep, Sittenfeld’s first novel — set in an exclusive East Coast boarding school — is also sharp and keenly observed, if often uncomfortable. Like both of these works, Eligible, her new novel, is a little soapy at times, but it’s also dry, witty and hugely entertaining.
In Sittenfeld’s retelling of Austen’s story, the Bennet family occupy a huge but dilapidated mansion in Cincinnati. The two eldest daughters, Jane and Liz (their ages accelerated to 39 and 38 for the present-day setting), live and work in New York, but have returned home after their father is taken ill. The three youngest sisters, Mary (30), Kitty (26) and Lydia (23) still live at home and their snobby, social-climbing mother is desperate to see them all married — and to the ‘right’ men.
When Mrs Bennet finds out that Chip Bingley — a surgeon and the star of a Bachelor-like reality show called Eligible — has moved to Cincinnati, she is desperate to set him up with one of her daughters, and soon enough, Jane and Chip begin to fall for each other. The same cannot be said for Liz — a clever but judgmental and gossip-loving journalist — and Chip’s best friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, a hard-working but aloof doctor, who start off on the wrong foot and then grow further and further out of step with each other.
I know the story of Pride and Prejudice well enough (I saw Joe Wright’s film adaptation) to recognise how clever a retelling Eligible is. Sittenfeld has done a great job of transposing Regency England and all of its rules, mores and attitudes to the 21st century Midwest. Her prose is razor-sharp and knowing and her protagonist Liz makes a largely sympathetic, if flawed heroine — not dissimilar to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, in fact.
Great work of literature, Eligible ain’t, but it is funny, smart and tremendous fun.
Disclaimer: Eligible will be published by Random House on 19 April 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.