Reimagine a book as beloved and timeless as Pride and Prejudice? Inconceivable! Curtis Sittenfeld is probably one of the few modern authors self-assured—and talented—enough to try.
And she succeeds, wonderfully. In Eligible, Liz Bennet is a New York City magazine editor on the verge of turning 40. She’s in a dead-end relationship, but she doesn’t know it yet. When her father suffers a health scare, Liz and her beautiful older sister, Jane, decamp to the family home in Cincinnati for the summer to help care for him.
None of the five Bennet daughters is married—to their mother’s shame—and only Liz and Jane have actual jobs. Kitty and Lydia spend their days at the local CrossFit, and Mary is a perpetual college student.
When Liz is introduced to the handsome but arrogant Fitzwilliam Darcy, a Cincinnati neurosurgeon, she is immediately put off by his arrogance. But Darcy’s friend Chip Bingley, a recent star of a “Bachelor”-like reality TV show, falls for Jane. Liz and Darcy keep crossing paths (literally—they jog the same route), and their hate-hate relationship slowly transforms into something else.
Eligible sparkles with Austen-esque wit and intelligence and is a pure pleasure to read. How did Sittenfeld, the author of four previous novels, including the bestsellers Prep and American Wife, decide to remake a bona fide classic? She was recruited as part of The Austen Project, in which bestselling authors retell Austen stories in a modern way.
“When someone offers to pay you to spend a few years in the world of Pride and Prejudice, it’s very hard to say no,” Sittenfeld says during a call to her home in St. Louis.
Sittenfeld is quick to point out that the project is not meant to improve upon the original.
“I definitely see this as an act of homage and admiration, and it’s not like I thought, well, Pride and Prejudice has gotten stale and it falls to me to make it relevant,” she says. “I think Pride and Prejudice is perfect. I understand different people will have different reactions to Eligible, and I’m OK with that.”
Making Austen-era characters seem modern took some planning on Sittenfeld’s part.
“I tried to think about how the characters act in Pride and Prejudice, and how they spend their time, and to find present-day equivalents,” she explains. “The characters arose out of that. If you were to describe the characters in Pride and Prejudice, you’d probably use the same or similar adjectives to describe their counterparts in Eligible. I wanted them to be recognizable as themselves but also wanted to make it feel fresh.”
“I tried to think about how the characters act in Pride and Prejudice, and how they spend their time, and to find present-day equivalents. . . . I wanted them to be recognizable as themselves but also wanted to make it feel fresh.”
The first modern twist is positioning Bingley as a reality TV star.
“Pride and Prejudice starts with this bachelor arriving in town. In the present day in a medium-sized Midwestern city, if a new eligible man arrived, how would everyone know he was single?” Sittenfeld says. “The reality show seems like a plausible explanation.”
Secondly, Liz and Jane are independent professionals, twice as old as the original characters. And Liz (gasp) has a sex life.
“Some readers may not like that she’s sexually active,” Sittenfeld says. “She’s 38, and it’s 2013 in the book, so that seems fairly realistic to me. In no way do I consider her to be trashy; it isn’t meant to be a comment on the fact that people’s morals have fallen.
“I have enormous affection for all my characters in general and in Eligible specifically,” she says. “I actually think the way I can be most generous to them is just by liking them. If I as a writer am condescending to my own characters, it makes them unappealing to the reader and doesn’t make them three–dimensional.”
Though she’s a Cincinnati native, Sittenfeld hasn’t lived in her hometown for years and had never set a novel there before.
“I did have to do research,” she says. “It was fun. I was home with my own family. I was visiting my parents for Christmas and literally walking around with my cell phone trying to decide what apartment building Darcy would live in.”
Her brother, P.G. Sittenfeld, a city councilman, kept close tabs on how she wrote about the city.
“My brother is Mr. Cincinnati,” she says with a laugh. “He’s a little protective of the city and wanted to be sure I depicted the city in a flattering way.”
The busy mother of two children, ages 5 and 7, Sittenfeld has become fiercely mindful of her writing time.
“Because I’m lucky to have flexibility in my schedule, that actually means I need to be more careful. In theory, I could have lunch with friends every day. In practice, it means I would never finish a book.”
As a mom, Sittenfeld says she has a whole new respect for reading as a source of pleasure as well as food for thought.
“After I became a parent, I developed a greater appreciation for a book or TV show or movie that is light or fun but still smart,” she says. “Maybe I’m tired at the end of the day and I have half an hour before bed to devote to pure entertainment, so I want something that doesn’t make me feel incredibly depressed. I feel like Eligible is supposed to be that thing for people. There are very few books that are engrossing and smart but not depressing. It was a fun challenge to write a fun, fizzy, but still intelligent book.”
“My other books—I’m proud of them, but I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the first word I would use to describe any of them,” she says. “I feel like this is fun. It’s good to learn to be fun at 40—it’s never too late!”