& Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. Publisher: Random House April 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. Publisher: Random House April 2016

The Book Itself: A pretty, delicate script, a simple graphic of a diamond ring – it’s not the most stand-out cover on the shelf, but it has its appeal.

My Review: 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.

**Warning: I will be semi-spoiling some plot points in this book, but only because it is based on that overly-taught classic, Pride & Prejudice. If you do not wish to have the original spoiled for you, perhaps skip this one.

This book has gotten a lot of press. Probably more than any book I’ve seen or read in recent years. It is everywhere. I can’t open a women’s magazine or website with a book category on it without seeing this graphic, red cover. Instagram is awash in Eligible sightings (yes…even mine). People are raving about it.

To me, Eligible is akin to watching a poorer version of the Kardashians enact plot arcs from Austen’s classic.

See, now this will make some people perk up, and it will make some of you recoil. Eligible is trying to cash in on the former. And apparently it’s succeeding big time.

The names remain mostly the same. We have Chip Bingley, rather than Charles Bingley. We have a Jasper Wickham versus George Wickham. Our sisters are the same: Mary, Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, and Kitty.

And all of them are terrible, judgmental, rude, stuck-up snobs. Except Jane. But Jane is frustrating in her own right for never speaking her mind and never putting her awful family members in their places.  Mary is gruff, rude for no particular reason, and barely written about throughout the entire book. Elizabeth, our POV character, is nosy, holier-than-thou, and obnoxious. Lydia and Kitty are perhaps the worst: lazy and freeloading, snarling at their sisters at every turn, whether it be for asking what they are doing, accusing Mary of being a lesbian, or whining about their otherwise charmed life. None of them are really redeemed by the novel’s end.

But none of them really compare to Mrs. Bennet. In the original Pride & Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is rather fixated with marriage (of course, this was the 1700s-1800s, when marriage was considered the focal point on which a woman’s life pivoted). Mrs. Bennet in this contemporary adaptation is the rudest, most homophobic, racist, insufferable woman I have possibly ever read in contemporary literature. Not one word leaves her lips that is not insulting to someone inside or outside of the family. She’s awful. And what makes her more awful is that no one ever tells her that what she is saying is in any way wrong/rude/ungrateful. They merely roll their eyes, they sigh at their impossible mother. I would have maybe liked Mrs. Bennet, or even one of the sisters more if someone had flat-out yelled at the matriarch for being solely focused on her pretty white daughters marrying handsome white rich men. I would have respected both sides more for it, no matter the reactions after the blowout. As it was, Mrs. Bennet came off entirely one dimensional, and completely, entirely awful. I have no doubt that people like her exist in the world, but it didn’t make me want to root for her or any of the characters around her.

The book also tries to tie in “contemporary issues”. It does so rather poorly. There is a LGBTQ character, as well as a non-white character. The LGBTQ character is shamed for their identity, made to apologize for it, and only used for their scandal factor in their involvement in the Bennet’s lives (how dare someone not be straight, white, beautiful, and rich?! And how dare they hang around the Bennet sisters?!) The non-white character speaks maybe five sentences, and is again only used as shock factor, with very little characterization or personality. This isn’t confronting today’s racial and gender issues. It’s insulting them.

Am I taking all of this a little too seriously? Maybe so. This modern re-telling certainly heightens all of the characters and their less than stellar characteristics to the absurd on purpose. And it’s akin to when a Keeping Up with the Kardashians marathon comes on TV; it’s rather hard to look away. It’s a little fun to see awful people do awful things (even if it all ends in marriages, because good things happen to terrible people all the time). But isn’t it a little sad that society is currently obsessed with “reality” TV like that, with people like that, and with books like this?

That’s how this book played out to me. I hated the sisters (except poor, meek Jane. But come on, Jane! Be a hero and slap your mother across the face for us!), and I loathed Mrs. Bennet. So if you don’t mind your mindless fun every now and then, and if you don’t think you’d mind spending some time with absurd, insufferable people for some 500 pages, give this a go. But if reality TV and a certain famous family make you want to grind your teeth into dust…give it a pass.

My Grade: C-


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