Well put Lizzie Bennet in a time machine, send her spinning through the centuries and have her land not in old Blighty but in modern day Cincinnati, and what do we find ourselves with but this gorgeous treat of a book from Curtis Sittenfeld. ‘Eligible’ is a re working of the mighty Austen’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’, the last offering from the series that has seen a number of authors offer us their take on her stories. Alexander McCall Smith gave us ‘Emma’, Joanna Trollope with ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Northanger Abbey’ is put in the hands of Val McDermid. As per my last post, it is no surprise to me that we keep seeing these classics being revisited time and time again – they often have such a stake in readers imaginations, being that they have grown up with them, studied them in school and seen countless film adaptations, I think the idea of setting out your own pitch must be a very tempting one.
But are all stories created equal? I am a huge Austen fan and I am very wary of dipping into the miles of shelves devoted to the latest re jig of her works, a lot of the time I find they don’t have anything to offer me and with living in the city of Bath we certainly see a LOT of Austen inspired works coming our way. I have read both ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ by P D James and ‘Longbourn’ by Jo Baker and thoroughly enjoyed both, I think possibly because they didn’t interfere with the original tale and just felt like an added extra to a story that I could treat as something completely separate if I wanted to (unlike, again the book that featured last month, ‘Reader, I Married Him’, where some of the stories were so convincing I feel they have completely altered how I read Jane Eyre!) So when I heard about this Austen project I must confess I was wary but not as perturbed as some, I am not offended by the idea of authors having ‘a go’ at Austen, I will simply pass their take by if it not to my fancy, I don’t think we achieve much by being precious about these things. And here I must confess I have not really been taken with the offerings of this project so far, they didn’t capture my imagination or I just didn’t warm to the take on the story or style. With Sittenfeld this was not the case, I enjoyed this book in the way you would a sneaky cocktail at the end of your week, a sugary delicious treat that goes down easily and leaves you craving more.
The Bennet family are living in a crumbling, spider infested grand home in Cincennati when Lizzie is called back from her base in New York as Mr Bennet has been suffering from heart problems. With her and Jane side by side and being the voices of reason amongst the chaos caused by their mother and younger sisters, they quickly become aware that there are several family issues that need addressing – and quickly. Sittenfeld brings these characters bang up to date perfectly, with Jane as a yoga instructor and Lizzie working as a journalist for a woman’s magazine (which she is keen to stress features important reports alongside the lipstick reviews) they all feel perfectly ‘real’ in their modern versions, still retaining their character and put into roles which seem a natural progression from their time in bonnets.
The introduction of the menfolk, Darcy, Bingley and Wickham (or their new name sakes) is done in such a way that we see the markers from the original story so we can locate ourselves, but slight detours and changes to the plot means that as a reader we still have surprises to come that keep us turning the page. One of the real delights for me was the treatment of Lady Catherine de Burgh, I could have applauded Sittenfeld for how she views this power house of a woman. It was also interesting to see her take on the challenges a character like Lizzie, who so many have modelled themselves upon, would be facing up to in her life today, within her career, family relations and of course romance.
This book almost felt like a fictional sorbet to me, and I mean that as a real compliment. I love Sittenfeld’s prose, with ‘American Wife’ being a firm favourite amongst so many I know (if you haven’t looked it up, do, you’ll never think of the role of America’s First Lady in the same way again) and she keeps her high standard up here with excellent prose. The treat I found is that she makes it all seem so simple, you never work against the text, it is there solely for your enjoyment. I read so much for work and it is a long time since I have just felt like I could completely relax and just think ‘s*d it, this book is total and utter fun’ and consequently want to stay up until the middle of the night to finish it (the short chapters also help with this, I kept finding myself saying ‘just one more…’). If you want a good read that will put a smile on your face, and it is truth universally acknowledged that we all do, I cannot recommend this enough.
‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld £14.99 (Harper Collins)