The time between reviews has been unacceptably long, and so I must begin with my sincerest apologies to anyone out there in cyberspace who has been waiting for an update. I’m sure one of you felt a momentary twinge of interest before the rest of the world gained your attention and you forgot all about me, which is both fine and understandable.
But what prompts me to write today is one of the greatest disappointments of my recent readings. Because I have been reading, despite no reviews. My classes have been taking up a lot of my time and, obviously, most of my reading has come from them. Detective Fiction allowed for further exploration in some famous mystery novels (The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Drowning Pool, etc.) as well as some not-so-famous ones (the one that comes immediately to mind is Somebody Killed His Editor, which is so utterly dreadful that I can’t help but give it a mediocre review).
Among my pleasure readings, I tackled Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On (an utter masterpiece), Andy Weir’s The Martian (a whole universe of stars in approval for both book and film, although book was unsurprisingly better), Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (MAGNIFICENT), and Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s Career of Evil (twisty and compelling mystery, but so gruesome and creepy I have trouble recommending it).
So imagine my absolute joy when, just before the last days of semester, the store received, in the mail, the one galley I had been looking forward to since The Austen Project was announced, the galley that two of my bosses wrote pleas for on my behalf. I actually jumped with excitement when I took it in my hand and I have never been so ready to start reading a book.
But within the first few pages, I wasn’t convinced I’d like it. And then I read the back description. And it sounded… okay…? And then I kept reading.
And that, dear readers, is where things started to Chinua Achebe. (Fall apart, I mean.)
If you don’t want any spoilers, look away now. I’m only saying this because, while I know I usually have some sort of spoilers, I try my hardest not to completely ruin everything, but this one requires some venting on my side, so you’re going to get spoilers.
So seriously, don’t want spoilers of any kind, don’t keep reading. Just skip to the very end when I tell you when the book is coming to a bookstore near you.
So The Austen Project, which I don’t believe I’ve mentioned in great detail, is a brilliant plan to take Jane Austen’s classic novels and modernize them, with a different author taking on each project. So far, we’ve had Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, and the ever-wonderful Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. In all three of these retellings, the authors have stayed true to the plot and characters of the originals while adjusting some details (Marianne of S&S plays guitar and Elinor is studying architecture, Catherine Morland of NA is going to a festival in Edinburgh, and Emma is studying interior design while she plays matchmaker). I have thoroughly enjoyed the three novels thus far, despite people saying that it’s in bad taste to adjust Jane Austen’s works to modern tastes – what’s wrong with reading the original Austen?!? – and, having just finished a semester course on the famous JA herself, I feel even more confident in my assumption that she would be flattered that authors are vying for a chance to update her stories.
And maybe this is where the trouble for me really starts. Pride and Prejudice was the first Austen I read over a decade ago and, as a young woman who 1) loves British literature, and 2) loves period piece dramas largely because of Colin Firth’s perfection in playing Mr. Darcy, I had Olympic-level high expectations for the latest Austen Project installment. And maybe the height of those expectations is what made me dislike this book so much and be so shocked by the generally positive reviews on Goodreads.
Curtis Sittenfeld (Sisterland, American Wife) offers her retelling of the most famous Austen novel under a new name, Eligible, in reference to the reality show in which Chip Bingley takes part. The trouble is, the novel takes on the feel of a poorly scripted reality show more and more and because less enchantingly Austenian as the plot progresses. Perhaps Eligible is not Pride and Prejudice because, unlike the retellings from Trollope, McDermid, and McCall Smith’s books, Sittenfeld is trying to distance herself from the original and remove all sense of Austen from the text. That would seem to me to be a bit of a problem, considering it’s being written for the Austen Project…
Overall, to be perfectly frank, it is only the occasional sentence which glimmers, a moment of grammatical passion, in an otherwise stale retelling.
Basic gist of the story: Liz and Jane Bennet come home to Cincinnati from their lives in New York City because Mr. Bennet has a heart attack and they need to take care of him. Enter the rest of the Bennets – Mrs., still as obnoxious as ever; Mary, who may or may not be a lesbian and who spends her time taking online college courses instead of spending time getting a job in the real world; Kitty, who apparently has a talent with manis and pedis, but who also refuses to get a real job and move out of the family house; and, of course, Lydia, a snot-nosed, bratty-mouthed, absolutely unbearable update of her 19th century self. Since the Bennets aren’t really good at keeping budgets, the family is about to go bankrupt (although there never seems to be any urgency about the money situation), and the added pressure of all the girls getting older (Jane is 40, Liz is 38) and having no babies is making life horrible. And then Chip Bingley, former bachelor star of Eligible (which is The Bachelor without a copyright) and his neurosurgeon friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. In case you weren’t sure what was going to happen, Liz doesn’t like Darcy at first because he’s kind of a jackass, and Chip immediately hits it off with Jane, and then things happen to interfere with their romantic relationships and in the end people get married.
Blah, blah, blah.
I have lots of issues with this book, and this is basically going to turn into a term paper of why this is a total disappointment, but bear with me.
- The ages of characters – I have no problem with casting Liz and Jane as older than the Austen original, mainly because the threat is the same. Both girls are getting older, they’re single, and nothing seems to be happening. My issue is that the age doesn’t make them more lovable, nor does it make me sympathize with their plights. Jane, having been unable to find a good man who wants her and babies for keeps, is undergoing intrauterine insemination so that she can at least have a baby before her eggs dry up. Liz, meanwhile, has been lusting after a douchebag named Jasper Wick (hmm, I wonder what role he may play?) who happens to be married with a child, but because his wife’s grandmother is super rich, they can’t divorce even though both Jasper and his wife hate each other now, and so Liz embarks on an affair with him because, quite frankly, she can. So despite Jane and Liz being older, being more metropolitan than their 19th-century counterparts, they don’t seem to have developed much. I’m not saying that either character pursuing their desires of either children or sexual pleasure is wrong, but it doesn’t feel natural. Liz’s nonchalance to being the Other Woman, even if Mrs. Jasper is okay with the situation as her husband claims, makes her judgments of Darcy, Bingley, her entire family, unreliable and obnoxious. Jane suffers, we are told, from a sort of heartbreak where she spends a long time with a man she loves, but who has two children of his own and had a vasectomy, so having children with Jane is off the table. I’ve never understood women who remain with men whose goals are not even close to aligned, and to have Jane (who is usually a pushover, but at least a sweet pushover) become one of those women irritates me.
- Darcy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Caroline Bingley, Charlotte Lucas, and every other character you might remember running into at some point – their personalities don’t feel right with the way the original was composed. Darcy is a close exception to being almost what he should be, mainly because he’s a jerk. Like, a big fat jerk. But the moment he’s supposed to change (when Lizzy visits Pemberley, if you recall) it doesn’t make sense why he changed. He just becomes kind of lovable. And that’s it. Lady Catherine is no longer a powerful woman who tries to push Lizzy around – she’s Kathy de Bourgh, a famous feminist Liz is trying to interview for her magazine (Mascara, by the way, what a terrible name for a magazine…).
Mr. Collins becomes Cousin Willie, whose previous incarnation is clearly Mr. Kohli from the hit film Bride and Prejudice, as he’s a tech-savvy geek who thinks marriage should be practical and not romantic. Caroline Bingley is just a bitch, pure and simple, and her jabs at Liz are almost impossibly sharp for no one to notice/call her out. Charlotte is depressing and nearly bipolar – she shuns Liz’s (albeit pretentious and annoying) advice to not rush into anything with Willie and then bursts into tears when she moves in with the man weeks later.
The Bad Guy – Jasper Wick (who I can’t help but compare to Rufus Sewell’s Jasper from The Holiday, in which the delightful Kate Winslet must finally let the toxic man who is ruining her love life go) is disappointingly mediocre as villains go, having an incident at Stanford be his nasty bit as opposed to the original Wickham’s near-abduction of Georgiana Darcy. I’m not saying Jasper’s crime is not worth noting, but it just felt flat. He gets told to rewrite a shit story in his creative writing class and he pees on the professor’s desk – also, the professor is a black woman, so there’s the ever-present racial threat. It’s a bad thing to do, but after the buildup of why Darcy hates him and why Jasper doesn’t want Liz to find out the truth… it’s just… disturbing. To spend so much time climbing a mountain, waiting for some sort of really nasty exploit, only to find that it’s still bad, but not the violence you expected… I just didn’t care. And this is not to say that a college-age man getting drunk and pissing all over his professor’s desk (whether or not said professor is male/female, black/white) is okay, because it’s not. It’s gross and childish and honestly pretty creepy. But it’s not the threat of violence against a woman that the original Wickham carried.
- The Elopement – Austen fans will of course recall that the climax of the novel occurs around the time Lizzy sees Pemberley, falls in love with Darcy, and finds out that Lydia is eloping with Wickham, thus ruining the good name of the Bennet family. Yeah, doesn’t happen here. Instead, Lydia has been dating a perfectly nice gym owner who seems normal, caring, and down-to-earth. But then Liz gets a text from Mary – LYDIA’S BOYFRIEND IS TRANSGENDER! And at that point, the story, for me, really fell apart. I have no problem with Lydia’s boyfriend being transgender, mainly because it’s an interesting update to a classic. But the issue I have is that it comes out of nowhere and is expected to resonate with its shock factor. Sure, the Bennet parents are shocked – SHOCKED, I TELL YOU! – that their daughter is marrying a transgender person, and despite it being 2015 (or ’13, in the novel), there are people who are shocked. But in the real world, is that something that would make someone elope, and would a daughter eloping still make the father chase after her, and would a family really reconcile as quickly over these issues as they seem to here? Ham (Lydia’s boyfriend) is perfect throughout the novel – you’ll recall that original Wickham had some moments that were more than suspect – and if he makes Lydia happy, who cares? The family reaction (which makes Liz leap up and fly from California back to Cincinnati IMMEDIATELY) is another thing that seems forced, and I just frankly didn’t care. It was too much energy to exert over something that had no real buildup.
So what I decided, after writing all of this and trying to find some moment of salvation (couldn’t), is that the biggest flaw is that there are no high stakes here. For obvious reasons, the dangers of Austen’s world – elopement meaning family ruination, or the endangerment of femininity by masculine force, or low connections cutting off the potential for survival in society – are rarely threats to today’s culture. But this is why the strength of plot is so vital. Perhaps a modern reader will not understand why a couple shouldn’t elope, or how that would reflect badly on the family, but a modern reader can appreciate the fact that sexual threats are still frighteningly real, that poverty continues to darken society’s doors. Maybe Lizzy talking to Wickham for too long alone doesn’t seem so bad to us now, but translate her having an affair with him in which there is collateral damage and she is forced to recognize the fallout – that could work (this Liz may have an affair, but the collateral is unimportant to her, largely because orgasm seems her only real goal in that relationship).
In a modern world where we can expect so much to be happening that threatens our beloved characters – expand on racial issues, expand on LGBTQ issues, expand on political issues – we are instead given boring sisters in a boring family whose biggest problems are being close to middle-aged and not having produced children. Any potential a modern Lizzy/Darcy relationship could offer is butchered by bland personalities and sessions of “hate sex,” in which they indulge at Liz’s suggestion because she’s bored and Jasper’s not around. Darcy is awkward and dull and a jackass, but at least he is more palatable than Liz because he is what we expect.
Liz is the ultimate betrayal for me. Elizabeth Bennet has long been one of my favorite heroines – she’s witty, strong, intelligent, funny, and flawed in ways that allow her to grow. Liz is obnoxious. She goes beyond proud or prejudiced, and quickly descends into insufferably independent. I obviously have no issue with strong female characters, but Liz doesn’t seem to grow as a character. She’s gentle to Georgiana, but who wouldn’t be? She realizes she’s in love with Darcy… after seeing his house (and while original Lizzy jokes that she fell in love with Darcy after seeing Pemberley, we get the impression she doesn’t mean it seriously). She makes decisions for her whole family without consulting them because she thinks she knows what is best, and clearly hates her family. Also, may I reiterate her disinterest in the collateral damage in her sex life? How can we know that Jasper’s wife is really okay with him having an affair, especially after we find out he’s been having a second affair for a while now? Liz is no longer a character with sound judgment, nor is she a woman to whom I can look up. For all her faults, Austen’s Lizzy does what she believes is best, and tries to learn from mistakes. Call me old fashioned, but I want my heroine to be that kind of flawed, and the same thing goes for my heroes. I want them to learn, to grow, to become people rather than caricatures.
To make me fall out of love with Lizzy Bennet is a feat no author of Austen sequels, or modernizations, or any movie/TV adaptation has ever managed, so I give kudos to Sittenfeld on that. But I cannot forgive her for what has happened to this novel, which I had awaited with such great expectations. My lack of interest broke my heart, and the fact that I checked the end after reading less than a quarter of the book should prove that I finished reading it out of obligation to my bosses who worked hard to get me a copy.
I gave it two stars on Goodreads simply because I have read worse things than this, and I feel that giving one-star reviews is basically like beating up the author repeatedly. While this review is not glowing, nor will it make the back blurbs on either the hardcover or paperback version of this book, I must be honest. For the sake of the Austen Project, I can only hope that the next installment is better than this. Although, if it’s Mansfield Park, my absolute least favorite Austen novel without question, it might be rough going again.
Sorry, Ms. Sittenfeld.
Eligible is due out in bookstores 26 April 2016. Visit your local indie. If you dare.