It’s like a fun dinner party game (if you’re at a dinner party where all the guests are literary geeks. And I never am. Where are these parties? The ones where everyone doesn’t just talk about houses and schools? I am so very, very middle class.)
Anyway, the game is: updating your favourite classic novels. What would they look like in the era of Kardashians? Of Pokemon Go? Of Trump? Some things are timeless: character traits, narrative arcs of redemption or destruction. But place, occupation, societal expectation: all up for grabs. I like to think, for example, that Madame Bovary would play bingo apps online, and Oliver Twist would definitely be navigating the care system.
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is an extended bout of this game, for it is a modern world update of Pride and Prejudice. Bingley is now “Chips Bingley”, sometime doctor who is known from his appearance on a reality dating show “Eligible.” Darcy is a chilly surgeon with an enormous LA family pad on the other side of the country to where he lives. The whole thing is set in suburban Cincinati. Spinster sisters Jane and Lizzie are hitting their forties. The younger sisters are jobless spongers off their parents. Mrs Bennett has a shopping addiction, Mr Bennett is burying his head in the sand against the mounting debt the family is in. Katherine de Burgh is Kathy de Burgh, feminist icon. See – fun, isn’t it?
And more revealing that fun alone – these choices also reflect your angle on the book: what do you think is the most important thing about the character, the thing you have to keep, and what can be lost. So, Sittenfeld happily drops any connection between Mr Collins and Kathy de Burgh, and between Darcy’s sister and the Wickham character, but maintains Collins’ plot role as an idiot who Lizzie’s friend is so desperate that she’ll put up with (despite terrible snoring) and Darcy’s sister’s role of a humaniser of the man himself.
So does this novel simply ride the coat-tails of the original, or does it have any individual merit? At first I thought there was no more to it, but I have to admit that Sittenfeld’s pretty altered narrative (can’t remember spider fumigations in the original) is an enjoyable read on its own terms. But you need to be familiar with the original to make the most of it. But let’s not lie – 99% of the British (nay, the world?) population owes its knowledge of P&P to the preeminent 1995 BBC TV serialisation. So even (perhaps particularly) if you’ve never opened the actual Austen text but Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-white-shirt was your highbrow teenage heartthrob of choice, give it a go – you’ll probably enjoy P&P 21st Century style.