Deborah Yaffe

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Eligible: Skyline chili and marshmallow fluff

By Deborah Yaffe, May 9 2016 01:00PM

In the 1940 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by the great comic actress Edna May Oliver, turns out to be an old softie. Just as in Jane Austen’s novel, her combative confrontation with Elizabeth Bennet ends up bringing the young lovers together, but in the movie version, Lady Catherine planned it that way -- because she’s super-fond of Elizabeth. “People flatter her so much. She enjoys an occasional change,” a smiley Mr. Darcy explains to his lady-love.


When I was a kid, the movie was shown on our local college campus (yes, boys and girls: before God created streaming video, we could only see movies when they were screened in public), and my father, the person who gave me my first copy of P&P, took me along. Afterwards, he commented on Lady Catherine’s personality transplant. “It turns out that that spinster in rural England was a lot less sentimental than all those hard-boiled Hollywood types,” he said.


I was reminded of that moment last month, as I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which updates P&P to Cincinnati in 2013, a world of reality TV, Skyline chili and frequent texting. Sittenfeld’s book is the latest installment in the HarperCollins-initiated Austen Project, which assigns a modern update of each Austen novel to a popular yet critically acclaimed contemporary writer.


Regular blog readers will recall that I hated the first three Austen Project outings, so I’m happy to report that Eligible is much, much better. It’s a cheerful, light-hearted reimagining with some laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue, and its playful attitude towards Austen’s original makes it a lot more enjoyable than the slavishly faithful earlier installments.


In this version of P&P, Darcy and Bingley are Harvard-educated doctors working at the local hospital; Jane and Liz are Cincinnati natives who work in New York but are back in town to nurse their ailing father; and “Cousin Willie” Collins is a socially awkward nerd who made a fortune in Silicon Valley. Jane, still single at nearly forty, is planning to have a baby on her own, and Darcy and Liz fall into bed together long before anyone gets around to proposing.


For non-Janeites, it's a pleasant diversion; for experienced readers of Janeite fanfic, it’s the usual enjoyable treasure hunt for the parallels to our favorite scenes: Liz jogs to the hospital after Jane suffers a fainting spell, arriving sweaty and overheated, though without a muddy petticoat; Darcy declares his love after showing up on Liz’s doorstep in hospital scrubs, following an overnight shift.


Reviews of Eligible have been mixed – the daily New York Times hated it, while the Sunday New York Times Book Review loved it – but that apparently hasn’t hurt sales: in marked contrast to the reported commercial failure of earlier Austen Project outings, Eligible made it to #6 on the Times bestseller list this week. Clearly, I’m not alone in thinking that Eligible is an entertaining beach read.


Pride and Prejudice, of course, is a lot more than that. What makes Eligible, for all its virtues, so much less? It’s not just that Sittenfeld’s wry prose can’t quite match Austen’s elegant lucidity. It’s that that spinster in rural England was a lot less sentimental than even a good novelist writing for a supposedly hard-boiled contemporary audience.


Repeatedly, Sittenfeld takes a tough-minded element of Austen's original and replaces the steel with marshmallow fluff. Consider Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine is a woman who abuses her social power to perpetuate a system that keeps other women powerless. At the end of Pride and Prejudice, her immediate aims have been thwarted, but her social position – not to mention the system that created it -- remains untouched, and Elizabeth persuades Darcy to reconcile with her.


In marked contrast, Sittenfeld’s Lady Catherine – a feminist icon named Kathy de Bourgh, whose career closely resembles that of Gloria Steinem – is gracious, thoughtful and perceptive. She’s a woman who uses her social power to help other women. When Liz interviews her for a feature in a women’s magazine, Kathy sensitively articulates the balance between self and other in romantic relationships, helping Liz move forward in her relationship with Darcy. Sittenfeld’s Lady Catherine is a contemporary, sisterhood-is-powerful version of Edna May Oliver.


Sittenfeld takes a similarly rosy view of the Charlotte-Mr. Collins relationship. Jane Austen gives us an intelligent woman who, with no illusions, enters a loveless marriage to a fool because she believes her society offers no better alternative. Sittenfeld gives us a woman who finds her awkward paramour “cute in a nerd way” and concludes, “I think he loves me, and I want to make it work.”


Most striking of all is Sittenfeld’s airbrushing of the Wickham/Lydia plot. Jane Austen’s Wickham is charming but fundamentally cold, a serial user of women whose bribe-induced marriage to Lydia is simultaneously the only outcome that will allow her any social viability and a tragedy that will ruin her chances of happiness. By marrying him, Lydia also ensures that her family will never be free of him; even the Darcy siblings, whose lives Wickham tried to wreck, will forever be connected to him.


In Eligible, the Wickham role is split in two: Jasper Wick is a charming but fundamentally shallow married man with whom Liz is having an unsatisfying affair; Ham Ryan is the owner of the CrossFit gym where Kitty and Lydia spend most of their time. Lydia’s eventual elopement with Ham is scandalous because – spoiler alert! – Ham is transgender, and the old-fashioned Bennet parents have trouble adjusting to the idea until Dr. Darcy explains it all to them.


Tellingly, however, Lydia’s marriage to Ham is nothing like Austen’s version. “That Lydia and Ham were in love seemed beyond doubt,” Liz decides when she sees them together post-elopement. Where Austen’s Lizzy Bennet disdains her sister’s shotgun match (“I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands”), Sittenfeld’s is a bit envious: “To be adored as deeply and inexplicably as Ham adored Lydia – would she herself, Liz wondered, ever experience it?”


Meanwhile, as literary villains go, Jasper Wick is pretty thin gruel. In place of Wickham’s cynical plot to hurt Darcy by ruining the teenage Georgiana, Sittenfeld has invented a distasteful, possibly racist college prank that seems to have had no permanent repercussions. And once Liz realizes Jasper’s worthlessness, disconnecting from him is as easy as ghosting his texts.


Eligible is good fun, but it’s reassuring and safe in a way that Jane Austen never is. In Sittenfeld’s world, the people we care about, and all the people they care about, end up living more or less happily ever after. In Austen’s world, it’s not that simple. Her good people must make their peace with the persistence of evil, because her bad people stick around in the neighborhood -- even in the family -- and seldom suffer the comeuppances they deserve. Unlike Sittenfeld, Austen doesn’t write Hollywood endings.


8 comments
May 10 2016 05:15PM by Kathleen

I loved this review. I still want to read "Eligible," but now I consider myself warned. Thank you for that.

May 10 2016 05:32PM by dyaffe

Thanks for commenting! Come back after you've read Eligible and let us all know what you thought. . .

May 16 2016 01:38PM by Ian Miller

I actually liked the Austen Project's S&S quite a bit, thought NA was fun but silly, and really disliked how lazy Emma was. This one...well, maybe it's because I've read literally dozens of modernized P&Ps, but it really didn't feel like it had anything to offer in terms of interpretation, other than a fairly annoying political tribalism and the aging up of the characters (which inspired me to read the similarly unsatisfying "The Three Weissmanns of Westport). Add to that the complete lack of dignity any of the characters demonstrates - Austen was satirizing many things, but I do not believe that her Bingley and Jane would be willing to be on a reality television show, or anything equivalent, based on how she felt about the Prince Regent.

Additionally, the craftsmanship felt extremely shoddy - having chapters take up half a page seems more like a way to pad your page count than any meaningful division in storytelling, and the prose, while competent, wasn't the kind of "wow" writing that justifies that kind of authorial self indulgence.

May 16 2016 01:56PM by dyaffe

Well, I'm not making any great claims for Eligible, but I did enjoy it. To each his/her own. The short-chapter thing (I read mine on Kindle, so that was less apparent) is pretty standard in contemporary chick-lit, I think -- it's about making the book feel fast and easy. (Since God forbid that we should put any effort into our reading. But don't get me started on that. . . )

May 16 2016 06:05PM by Ian Miller

I thought the Austen Project was going for a different market perception than chick-lit, though - more popular literary fiction? (To be sex-fair, The Da Vinci Code also has insultingly short chapters, and I hate it as well.)

I don't know if I'd say I hate Eligible, but I didn't enjoy it very much, particularly in the face of many, many other much better done Jane Austen fanfics.

May 16 2016 06:37PM by dyaffe

I think the Austen Project couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be. Trollope and Sittenfeld are middlebrow women's fiction, McDermid and McCall Smith are upper-tier genre fiction. Definitely the idea was to create a more respectable, but still popular, form of JAFF. But Sittenfeld has said in interviews that she's delighted by critics who say (sometimes critically!) that Eligible is nothing but an enjoyable romp. So it makes sense that she would adopt some of the tropes of Enjoyable Romp Fiction.

May 16 2016 09:00PM by Ian Miller

Hmmm. That is very disappointing - I think Jane Austen does provide light as well as intense enjoyment - but I don't see Sittenfeld (or really any of the authors) striving for that level of greatness. It's all very surface, which is not a fitting tribute to Austen at all.

May 16 2016 09:18PM by dyaffe

Authors capable of that level of greatness -- or even of a more-obtainable-by-mortals level of greatness -- might not choose to appropriate someone else's characters and plots. Or, if they did so, they'd presumably have a very strong POV, like Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea. But I don't think the Austen Project wanted something that subversive: they wanted to appeal to the Janeites who love the movies, the heritage properties, the romance, etc.

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