Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pride & Prejudice & Reality TV

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book was one of those happy accidents that I brought about through my own stupidity. Sometimes it's good to be an idiot.

I got a kind offer to receive an advance copy of this from the publisher, and I confused Curtis Sittenfeld with another author that wrote a book I loved. (A male author no less, and their names share nothing in common. I’m too embarrassed to even name him.) So I’ve never read Pride & Prejudice, nor seen a film version of it, never had no urge to do so, and scratched my head at the thought of a modern retelling of it that didn’t have zombies in it as a hook. I still accepted the copy based on that case of mistaken identity. Only after I got it did I realize my error, and I was horrified at what I’d done and was trying to think of how I could politely send it back. Then I remembered that I had read a book by Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife, and quite liked it. So I somewhat grudgingly decided that I was honor bound to at least give it a try. Then I ended up enjoying the book a lot.

I told you that little tale because it’s fitting that my experience with the book began this way because it’s the kind of thing that drives the whole story. An innocent mistake, embarrassment about it, an awkward obligation, and then confusion about how to handle the situation.

The Bennet family consists of the parents and five daughters. After Mr. Bennet has a heart attack the two oldest sisters, Jane and Liz, return home to Cincinnati from New York to help during his recovery. Since their mother cares only about traditional appearances and social status she’s embarrassed that Jane and Liz aren’t married and is desperate for one of them to hook up with handsome and rich Dr. Chip Bingley who was recently on a reality TV show called Eligible where he unsuccessfully tried to find a wife. Mrs. Bennet wrangles an invitation to a barbecue where the daughters meet him, and Jane and Chip actually do hit it off. However, Liz is far less impressed with Bingley’s friend and fellow doctor Fitzwilliam Darcy after she overhears him making insulting comments about her hometown and her family.

Complications arise with Jane and Chip’s budding romance, and the other Bennets are also a mess. The pragmatic Liz finds herself trying to fix situations ranging from her mother’s compulsive shopping and her parents’ financial problems while trying to motivate her younger sisters to do something with their lives. She also has to deal with the doubts that she starts having about her own long term affair with a married man.

You wouldn’t think that a 19th century novel of manners would work as a modern American story since we pretty much seem to be without shame as a people these days. After all, how do you have a plot that depends on social niceties in a culture that has things like reality television and cell phones? However, some clever choices by Sittenfeld make it all seem natural. Having Mrs. Bennet be obsessed with old school social norms and constantly finding her daughters lacking for their modern ways is one piece of that. Setting it in a Midwestern city, but having Darcy be from California draws nicely on coastal elitism to set the stage for a lot of the friction between him and Liz. The lack of internal filters of the younger sisters seems to come straight from a society where speaking your mind (Even if it's a rude or stupid thought.) is prized over simple civility and politeness.

All of this could have seemed like a bad romantic comedy cooked up by Hollywood that hinges on misunderstandings and wacky characters. What keeps it out of that ditch is the way that Sittenfeld writes the characters, particularly Liz who is the main focus. It required a deft touch to hit the right balance of letting Liz misread some situations while not making her seem like an idiot. She has to sometimes be judgmental, but she never comes across as shrill or a hypocrite despite her own imperfect choices. The story also requires her to be kind of a busybody, but she doesn’t seem like a bossy know-it-all. Overall, she seems like a nice woman doing her best to help her idiotic family and friends deal with their lives, and she can generally find the humor in all of it, including her own behavior.

I’m not sure how hardcore P&P fans will react to this, but I’d think they would generally find it a clever update. Checking out the Wikipedia page on the original tells me that there were some Easter eggs that went right over my head that they would probably enjoy. If you haven’t read it, but are looking for kind of a low key family drama with some well-drawn characters and a sense of humor then I’d highly recommend it because it was an entertaining read without knowing anything about the source material.

One other note: At about 500 pages this may seem like a borderline kitten-squisher, but it is made up of many very short chapters. Some of them are just a paragraph or two. So there is a lot of white space on the page, or at least there was in my ARC. So it's a very fast read, and the word count is a lot lower than you'd think just looking at a copy.

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