Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Eligible," by Curtis Sittenfeld

Here it is at last (there seemed to have been some delay since the novel was originally announced): the fourth book in the Austen Project’s modern reimaginings of Jane Austen’s six complete novels! “Eligible” (Random House, 2016), by Curtis Sittenfeld, follows the earlier entries: Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Val McDermid’s “Northanger Abbey,” and Alexander McColl Smith’s “Emma.” I have read all of them, and found them all somewhat enjoyable but rather tepidly interesting and, to be honest, undistinguished. “Eligible” differs from the earlier three in the “series” in that Curtis Sittenfeld has changed the title (it is based on “Pride and Prejudice”), and sets her story in the United States, Cincinnati to be specific. Her writing is sharper and funnier than that of the other authors. But it feels like she is trying too hard. Or maybe it is just too hard to accept the fact that Jane and Elizabeth are in their late 30s, and that Kitty and Lydia are not only silly but vulgar and mindless, and that the family lives in Ohio in the 21st century. The references to the Internet and other allusions to “modern life” feel artificial and stilted. Sittenfeld also brings in topics such as transgender and fertility treatments, which merely reinforces the “trying too hard to make it contemporary” feeling. It is true that Sittenfeld is an observant writer, and aware of human foibles, as Austen was to the nth degree, but she is definitely not in Austen’s league. And therein lies the problem: no one is in Austen’s league, and Austen devotees – such as I am – just can’t accept any kind of imitation. Yes, these contemporary versions are fun, and it is enjoyable to see where there are parallels and where there are not. And yes, we know they are not meant to be at the same level as Austen. And yes, yes, we read them, despite ourselves. I confess to reading "Eligible" eagerly and quickly. But it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t shake. Now I am wondering who will write the last two books, those based on “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion”; there has been no announcement yet that I can find. I am hoping against hope that wonderful writers will be chosen (and will accept the invitation), and that they will somehow transcend the inherent pitfalls of this type of reimagined novels. I am not very optimistic. But I am pretty sure – oh, who am I kidding? I am very sure – that I will read them both anyway, no matter who writes them and no matter how good or bad they are.
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