Books

‘Eligible’ re-imagines Jane Austen story in Cincinnati, with a ‘Bachelor’ twist

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of “Eligible.”
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of “Eligible.” File photo

I’ve long blamed Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” for convincing generations of bookish, would-be comedians to pine for fairy tale romances of their own.

But in “Eligible,” novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern re-imagining, the most fantastical element may be Liz Bennet’s longstanding and lucrative journalism career.

The bulk of the novel, the latest in the Austen Project’s series of contemporary retellings, takes place in Cincinnati, where the Bennets’ once-grand family home has begun to fall into disrepair.

Mounting medical bills from Mr. Bennet’s emergency heart surgery (devoted Republicans, the Bennets refused to enroll in Obamacare) make saving the home all but a lost cause. Still, Liz’s nervous, image-obsessed mother would rather focus on her daughters’ marriage prospects than confront her online shopping addiction or the family’s financial woes.

To make the marriage plot more pressing, Sittenfeld has aged the sisters. Lydia, the youngest, is now 23, with few marketable skills or interests beyond CrossFit. Jane, the eldest, is a 39-year-old yoga instructor desperate to start a family. Her best shot arrives in the form of Chip Bingley, a green ER doctor and recent star of the reality television show “Eligible” (read: “The Bachelor”).

Liz, at 38, has different ambitions. She’d rather fly around the country interviewing celebrities for Mascara, a popular women’s magazine, than settle down, even for Fitzwilliam Darcy, an Ivy-League-educated neurosurgeon at a Cincinnati stroke center.

As in Austen’s novel, Sittenfeld’s Darcy makes a poor first impression. “He looked,” Sittenfeld writes, “like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: Handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.”

Although Austen devotees may balk at the novel’s modernization — ditto its Americanization — Sittenfeld seems ideally suited to the task. Her breezy wit and sly social critiques capture the spirit, if not the tone, of Austen’s work.

And Sittenfeld’s connection with Cincinnati grounds the novel in a much less romantic (and thus much more relatable) setting. Where Austen indulged in descriptions of the English countryside, Sittenfeld waxes rhapsodic about the interior of Skyline Chili.

More importantly, Sittenfeld never lets snark shortchange sentiment. Liz’s hopes and disappointments are given full expression, as when, after a tedious evening with her awkward cousin Willie, she feels “the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

Although the story deviates from the source in a few clever and surprising ways, it at times cleaves too tightly to Austen’s scaffolding to logically motivate characters’ behavior — as when Liz races across the country to allay the consequences of her (adult) sister’s elopement. And some overspecific connections to contemporary culture risk stamping a timeless novel with an expiration date.

But the largest issue may be that the titular conceit — the television show “Eligible” — is far less interesting than Sittenfeld’s characters.

Romantic readers may feel robbed by a stagnant finale filtered through the (literal) lens of an “Eligible” camera crew. The show’s restrictions hamstring both Liz’s romantic overtures and Sittenfeld’s imagination, leading to a more subdued climax than the book’s rabbit-pulsed heartbeat demands.

Still, “Eligible” succeeds as a wry but wistful ode to modern courtship. The result is charming, diverting and compulsively readable — even for self-proclaimed cynics.

Reach Liz Cook at lizcook.kc@gmail.com.

Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld (500 pages; Random House; $28)

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