I would not want to be tasked with writing a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
I have seen the other three books of the Austen project on Goodreads and their lukewarm, at best, receptions. Although Eligible is the only retelling from the Austen Project that I have tackled, and the only of Sittenfeld’s novels I have yet read, I doubt that the ambivalence about this and the other novels is about the writers of them not doing an admirable job. To modernize novels so loved and so contexualized would require a more game and flexible and curious reader, not one who just wants the original, or one that thinks they are willing to give the modern writer a chance to do a decent spin and then inevitably finds that nothing other than the original will do.
It is hard to redo a historical romance set in modern times, the fact aside that it is such an adored story just how it is. Women do not have to shuffle off into marriage to survive and be accepted and “happy” these days. And social mobility is not the challenge that it once was, and I don’t know how much it matters to many people today. The stakes are not so high for a woman whose family cannot support her into adulthood, so Sittenfeld and the other writers had to create stakes that are significant by today’s standards.
In this, Sittenfeld did an awesome job. She found a way to create scandal that is timely and relevant. She wrote about how the modern idle rich do it. And she found a way to create romantic tension between characters in a day where the ultimate goal can be marriage but it can also just be having a chance to see how a relationship plays out with someone whom you are not sure how they feel about you, but you are pretty sure that you would move the world for them, even if you are not entirely sure why. She perfectly encapsulated the torture that it is to be around someone you love, but you do not know how they feel about you, and everyone is around all the time so you can’t tell them or try to figure it out. Liz has to make more assumptions in this that she does not challenge in order to make this plot tension work in a world where a woman can just call or text a man and ask. In Austen’s world, having frank conversations with men about how they feel about you is not nearly so simple, so Sittenfeld had to have Liz make assumptions, as well as notice near the end of the novel that she is not fact checking nearly as much as usual and maybe she should be doing this, and then does.
Sittenfeld also does admirably with the characters. Everyone changes in this book, at least a little, and I feel like in the original, characters like Mary and Kitty are stagnant, mostly used to emphasize the burden on the parents and the absolute disgrace that the Bennet family can work up to. The characters were completely indolent and entitled in the beginning and there are other plots in place to move them along all to change for the better, which was a nice added bonus. I kind of wanted to punch them in the face in the beginning, even Jane a little, which is the same as the original, but with the context I can better relate to I really was irritated with the lazy entitlement. This was also made worse with the fact that I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates while I was reading Eligible.
This does not mean I agreed with everything in the novel but over all I felt it was well done, especially for a difficult assignment in the first place. I mean, no one is asking me to write a modern iteration of a well known and loved classic novel. But to sum:
Lydia was hilarious. Funnier than Liz. Liz had cheesy humor. She really is not as funny as she thinks she is, which is mentioned in the book, ha. Lydia’s was sharp. I feel like this was on purpose, as Liz is not really meant to be a mean girl and Lydia kind of is.
The first time Darcy declares his love.
As I said before, she had new ways of making relevant and timely scandal.
Lady DeBourg did not have the tie in to Darcy that she does in the original, or to Collins. I loved it when she busted in on Liz in the original all trying to tell her what to do and Liz is like, no, and then you are like damn, this Darcy thing is real.
The final declaration of love. Just no. Not going to spoil it.
Liz having to make assumptions sucked but there would not be the dragged out tension without it.
And then I have to admit, after hinting that I just might be that cool and flexible reader that can give a modern retelling a fighting chance, I had to get used to some of the casual sex. If I am going to read more retellings I have to accept that characters are going to have sex when not married because it is not realistic to have them hold on to the old views if her characters are going to continue to be awesome and appealing.
Full disclosure: I am not as cool as I thought.
I definitely am keeping Sittenfeld’s Sisterland on my TBR and I am open to her other stuff. I have the Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, and I have The Nest on my library list although that is not the Sense and Sensibility from the original Austen project. Now I also want to re-read the original P&P to see where it is different in places I did not catch, which I think is a compliment to both Eligible and the original.