Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Review: 'Eligible' by Curtis Sittenfeld

Second Jane Austen-inspired read of the week! The 18th was the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, hence why you have probably seen her around a lot in the last week. I was really looking forward to Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield, partially because of the author, but also because Pride & Prejudice is my favourite novel. I'm still slightly conflicted by it, however. Thanks to Random House Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 19/04/2016
Publisher: Random House
From the “wickedly entertaining” (USA Today) Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Prep and American Wife, comes a modern retelling of Pride and PrejudiceEqual parts homage to Jane Austen and bold literary experiment, Eligible is a brilliant, playful, and delicious saga for the twenty-first century.  
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.  
Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible both honors and updates Austen's beloved tale. Tackling gender, class, courtship, and family, Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.
Tackling one of the world's most famous novels is an incredibly complicated task because there are so many fans out there which can be, and will be, disappointed. I, for a long while, didn't enjoy reading or watching any adaptations because I felt like these adaptations and spin-offs never lived up to the originals. Until I realised that an adaptation doesn't have to mirror the original but, rather, stand on its own two feet as an homage. In that sense Eligible has an even harder task, however, since it follows the storyline of Pride & Prejudice very closely. Everyone will expect the story to go a certain way and I was one of them. As such, the bare bones of the plot don't hold a lot of surprises. Where Eligible's strength lies is in the way it has updated and modernised the characters. This is also where, for me, some of the novel's weaknesses lay, however.

Everyone has been aged up a little bit and has been moved from the English countryside to twenty-first century America, although you wouldn't necessarily know it by the way Mrs. Bennet behaves. By moving the story to the mid-west of America Sittenfeld keeps the sense of claustrophobia which the country houses in England represent, explaining why both Liz and Jane have abandoned their home for New York. I liked a lot of the changes made, the way in which Sittenfeld also shows the almost-generational difference between the elder and younger Bennet sisters or how the daily worries of modern life affect a large family. But some of the changes, in my eyes, deprived some of the characters of the depth they are given by Austen. It especially affected the two main Bingleys, neither of whom I truly liked in Eligible. Towards the end of the novel the story also begins to drag a little bit. The reader knows where the story is going but it's not getting there and it leads to a bit of frustration.

Sittenfield's writing in and of itself is incredibly readable. The characters feel quite real and the cliches the novel engages in generally work very well for it. Eligible will quite happily suck you in and not let you get away very easily, but I felt it did lack the depth that it seemed to aspire to. There are a lot of great ideas and themes in Eligible, many of which work, but something about it also felt too easy to me. An adaptation or spin-off should bring more to a story already-told rather than simply cover it in a new slab of paint. Eligible does its best to modernise the world in which Pride & Prejudice is set but thereby Sittenfeld loses track of the heart of the story. By the time the happy end happens I was ready to move on.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Part of me really enjoyed Eligible but there was also a lot about it which simply didn't work for me. I think partially this is a personal thing where I'm still not entirely over my dislike for adaptations, but I do think there are flaws about Eligible. I'd recommend this to fans of Austen looking for a modern twist on a classic.

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