Austen tuts in her grave: "Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld

Book: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Release date: April 19, 2016

Pages: 492

Publisher: Random House

Genre/category: Contemporary Fiction

Rating: ★★★

This version of the Bennet family — and Mr. Darcy — is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help — and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

Let's have some fun with adjectives. How can I describe this book?

Clever. Cute. Insightful (at times). Surprising.

But. Also.

Stilted. Pretentious. Unrelatable. Problematic.

I was so excited about this one. I intend to reread Pride and Prejudice at some point, but I've seen the Keira Knightley adaptation enough times in recent years to still have the material pretty fresh in mind. I was excited to see how Sittenfeld would "modernize" the story. Some of the selling points were strong. Darcy as a neurosurgeon — could totally see that, and it would fit with his overly serious persona. Liz as a magazine writer — a somewhat cliche profession that's a go-to in the genre that's often unfairly derided as "chick lit" (hey, I'm a chick — do you have a problem with that?) but yeah, she speaks her mind and I could see her as a writer. Kitty and Lydia as vapid CrossFit devotees — OK, that's fun, that makes sense.

But you know what really drew me to this? When I read that Darcy and Liz fall in love after having lots and lots of hate sex. Um, yes, please.

Here's a spoiler: Don't read this for hot sexy hate sex. The amorous aspects of Eligible are somehow even less sexy than fade-to-black, "sometime later" depictions in that one Danielle Steel novel I read on the beach one summer. The romances, in general, are cute, but not well-developed, especially not developed enough to reach the conclusion that, while true to the source material, didn't feel like an organic development for this version of the characters.

I had a hard time getting past the overwrought, unnatural dialogue that sounded formal enough to fit in the original source material, not a retelling. Especially when Mr. Bennet spoke. No one talks like that, Curtis.

Then, there was all the unrelatable privilege. All the Cincinnati Bennets are unemployed and living off what's left of an inheritance. They're ostensibly broke and their house is in shambles, but they still live pretty comfortably and have enough left over to subsidize Jane's rent in New York so she can afford NYC rates on a yoga teacher salary. Maybe people like this exist, but it was hard to put myself in their mindset.

But there were aspects of this that I enjoyed. The circumstances complicating some of the relationships were pretty interesting. For instance, how might artificial insemination affect courting rituals when you're trying to get back into the dating scene? I bet you'd never really thought of that one (unless you watch Jane the Virgin, which you absolutely should do). Or, how long should you wait for your best friend you're in love with to fall in love with you? And is it ever a good idea to date a married man even if his marriage has devolved into a business arrangement as both parties wait out an inheritance (there go those unrelatable circumstances again)?

The reality show frame, which comes into play toward the end of the book, was surprisingly fun. And I loved the reimagining of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Instead of a hateful, snobby jerk who insults Liz, she's a feminist icon Liz interviews for work who gives her some insightful advice. You'll recognize the inspiration behind her immediately — Sittenfeld basically played Mad Libs with Gloria Steinem's bio.

Now, remember when I described this book as problematic? Here's one way: the older Bennets are low- to high-key racist. If you've ever watched Arrested Development, you might understand what Sittenfeld was probably going for. You put terrible things in the mouth of someone like Lucille Bluth, and the joke is that we all know what she's saying is terrible and don't agree with her. You consider the source. I thought Mrs. Bennet's reaction to a black Realtor was a realistic depiction of how some people see the world. But her beliefs aren't really interrogated or challenged. Instead, they're portrayed as quaint, silly, expected traits of someone of her generation. In other words, harmless.

And then we get to the trans character, and oh boy, do things get squicky. I was cautiously optimistic at first. The relationship between one of the characters and a transgender man is portrayed as a truly loving, normal, healthy one. But the way everyone around them reacts to the "big reveal" of one character's partner as trans is, again, probably realistic to how people freak out, but still, not cool. And when another character accepts the trans guy only when another character who should damn well know better compares being trans to a "birth defect," I was super turned off. Not cool, not modern.

With the introduction of interracial relationships and a trans character, I feel like Sittenfeld was projecting onto Liz when Liz imagined feeling "that self-congratulatory pride that heterosexual white people are known to experience due to proximate diversity." That's pretty much what this book did.

So. This one was a mixed bag. It was fun and creative, but some aspects of it definitely needed work.