I admit, I was not familiar with The Austen Project, which includes Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense & Sensibility, Emma retold by Alexander McCall Smith, and Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. Curtis Sittenfeld is the latest author hired by the Austen Project to bring Austen’s stories from the early 19th into the early 21st century, with her specific assignment being the “retelling” of Pride and Prejudice.
Sittenfeld is faithful to the basic structure of Austen’s book, retaining most of the names and personalities, but switching the locale to Cincinnati. In this version, Mrs. Bennett is a chatty, foolish, woman focused on making sure her five daughters are married off. Jane, the eldest, is a sweetheart. Mary, the middle daughter is a classic middle child, somewhat lost in the middle. The two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, remain self-absorbed and rude. Liz, the main female character, is very bright and quite sarcastic. The girls’ father, Mr. Bennet, has recently had bypass surgery, and is a bit detached. The two love interest candidates for the girls are Mr. Bingley, who is sweet and charming, and Mr. Darcy who displays pride and arrogance. In Sittenfeld’s telling, they are doctors who have recently moved to town. Sittenfeld’s Bingley has recently been a reality TV star, in a medical version of “The Bachelor,” where he wasn’t able to choose a bride.
Other updates include modes of communication (texts and phone calls replace long letters) and travel (flights replacing carriage rides). The avocations of the girls are brilliant, including teaching yoga part time while trying to get pregnant with artificial insemination, taking courses online, etc. Mr. Bennett has inherited his money and has never worked, and is a terrible financial manager. They have no health insurance, so the longstanding financial concerns are coming to a serious boiling point. Updating the plot from Austen’s entail that would leave the family home to a male cousin (very Downton Abbey-ish) to the 21st-century Bennetts being faced with having to sell the house to keep the family from becoming penniless and homeless.
Austen’s novel is highly regarded as being witty, while Sittenfeld’s telling veers toward being laugh-out-loud funny. The Bennett girls face twenty-first century situations including same sex couples living happily together, sex/hooking up on the first date, unwed pregnancy with no male partner, and a transgender male choosing one of the Bennet girls as his wife. Mrs. Bennett in this version is still a racist, homophobic moron whose outspoken comments are wildly inappropriate and yet appear somehow funny.
If I were an Austen zealot or literature purist, I might have found the changes difficult to handle, but I confess I read Eligible as a fresh story rather than a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, and enjoyed it on its own merits. I admit I am less a fan of this than of Sittelfeld’s earlier work (especially Prep), but appreciate the opportunity to review this in exchange for a copy from NetGalley. Four stars.