‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld: A Discussion
Kate: Okay, as sick as I am of Pride and Prejudice being rewritten, and as sick as I am of Regency/Victorian reboots in general, I unabashedly loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. More a reimagining than a retelling, this novel updates the original by making all of the sisters older and moving the entire thing to Cincinnati (among other things). So, Corey, first question to you: Do you think Sittenfeld’s work is successful in terms of capturing the spirit of the original?
Corey: Yes! I haven’t actually read any other retellings, but this book makes me want to. There is something so fundamentally charming, entertaining, and satisfying about this story that it feels almost like a fable or a myth. You can shift it around and change the time or the place (or both!) and it still retains its spirit. What do you think that ineffable “tale as old as time”-ness of it all is? Why do we need to keep reading and retelling and reimagining this particular tale?
Kate: Well, it’s Beauty and the Beast. Elizabeth Bennet, beauty — Fitzwilliam Darcy, beast. I suppose readers like to think that the attractive brooding asshole really does have a heart of gold, deep inside, that he’s waiting to reveal to that one special person. Which is the main heroine, a stand-in for the reader. Right? I mean, Twilight is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, supposedly. It’s all the same story.
Corey: I guess that’s my question: what is so compelling about this trope? Is it just the hope that every jerk has a heart of gold waiting to be revealed?
Kate: It’s probably a deeper redemption narrative. Not to get too in the weeds–
Corey: YAS WEEDS! I asked you this question because I knew you’d have amazing literature scholar insights.
Kate: Ha, good! Because that’s where we’re going, straight into the brush. While Pride and Prejudice might be all about Elizabeth, Darcy is the one on the clear archetypal hero’s journey arc. From the call to adventure (the dance where he meets the Bennets) to the refusal of the call (insulting Elizabeth) to the ordeal (his letter to Elizabeth regarding Wickham and his initial proposal), he undergoes one last final test and resurrection — fixing the Lydia and Wickham issue and thereby proving he is stripped of all of his pride regarding the Bennets — before he gains the treasure, Elizabeth’s hand. It resonates with us on a deep level because it’s following this archetypal narrative that we all instinctively understand and recognize.
Corey: So, in a sense it is mythological and that very basicness is why it resonates.
Kate: Plus…I think women like to think they can change men, or inspire them to change by mere virtue of their presence. That’s a theme in later literature, as well, including Dickens; women, through their calling as pure, domestic angels, can save men from their wicked bachelor ways. Austen differs only in that she is realistic about her expectations for women, arguing through this novel that men can change, but not because women change them. They can change themselves in order to prove themselves worthy, or to set themselves up for a more successful relationship.
Corey: Hmm, it seems that men changing themselves to be worthy vs. the woman’s innate goodness changing man are two sides of the same coin. It’s still the influence of the woman affecting change on the man. And I suppose either way it’s an appealing narrative — people crave redemption.
Kate: Exactly! Here’s my one major issue with this adaptation — I don’t understand hate sex. This is a personal failing of mine, maybe, but I can’t imagine wanting to jump someone you actively abhor. I suppose the point is actually that you don’t abhor them, but this is the only part of Eligible that didn’t ring true for me. I can see Liz telling all of her friends how much she hates this guy while secretly lusting after him from afar…but I just don’t know about this in general.
Corey: I think you’re quite right: the whole point is that you don’t actually abhor the person. I can’t speak for hate sex more broadly (I also, can’t quite imagine it, but I’m not a fiery Liz Bennet kind of person), but in terms of Liz and Darcy, you have to admit it seems fairly appropriate. In the original, they constantly spark and glower and can’t seem to avoid each other — it doesn’t seem like a totally illogical leap to imagine trying to quelch an unwanted flame in this way!
Kate: I just preferred Liz and Darcy at a distance, that’s all. I feel like once you’ve seen someone naked, there’s much less tension, and that’s what didn’t ring true for me. Darcy and Liz are allllll about tension.
Georgiana’s eating disorder was another area that was a bit weird for me. I was startled that she wasn’t connected to Jasper Wick, as in the original story. Since when is an eating disorder a substitute for a failed relationship?
Corey: YES! I sort of wondered why even bring up the anorexia if it was just going to be dropped with “oh yes she’s fine now” later?
Kate: I would be remiss to not interject here and say that a decades-long eating disorder is rarely “just fine” with no lasting impacts. Carry on.
Corey: Exactly! Why bring it up at all if it isn’t going to be addressed realistically? And I was similarly shocked to find out that Jasper’s transgressions in college had nothing to do with Georgiana — or, really, with Darcy. The personal aspect of their animosity was just abandoned in favor of reinforcing the idea of Darcy as ethical paragon. And Jasper came off as merely gross rather than reprehensible.
Kate: To be fair, it’s hard to translate Austen’s specific social concerns into more modern-day problems. Though surely an eating disorder triggered by an emotionally abusive former relationship with Jasper Wick would have been one easy way to deal with that issue. Darcy didn’t sell me on “protective older brother” here.
Corey: Yeah, did Georgie and Darcy even really interact? She mainly seemed to be there to give Liz the wrong impression about Darcy and Caroline.
Kate: Um, I think he was supposed to seem protective when telling Liz about Georgie’s eating disorder, but for me, “protective older brother” gets her some therapy, doesn’t wring his hands and tell other people about it behind his sister’s back.
Corey: But in a similar line of questioning, how did you feel about Lydia’s reimagining? Instead of foolishly running off with Wickham, this Lydia enters a loving, supportive relationship, but with a transgender man.
Kate: The stakes felt so much lower. This is not a woman whose “reputation” is going to be ruined in some way, or who is stabbing her sister in the back. Transgender partner or not…her relationship doesn’t matter in the way that the original Lydia’s did. She’s just in this relationship with this nice guy who happened to be born presenting female. Maybe that’s just me wishing parents would automatically be okay with any loving, supportive relationship their children enter into.
Corey: Completely! I know it would be pretty unreasonable for everyone in the 21st-century US to be connected in the same way that was possible in 19th-century rural England, but…I still missed the interconnectedness of Georgiana/Wickham/Liz/Wickham/Lydia. Lydia’s “transgression” here actually made her more likeable and seemed to bring the sisters closer together.
Kate: Same. I missed that interconnectedness, and I think it would have translated well to the small-town feel of the setting. Sittenfeld made good use of place here. Cincinnati — she captured the essence of a Rust Belt city, a place natives are proud of but that a big-city, Ivy-League neurosurgeon would be snotty about. Darcy’s rudeness about the attractiveness of the local women is horrible, but rings very true to me.
Corey: Oh man, I really felt for Cincinnati! She might as well have set it in Buffalo, my current roost, and she nails everything about living in a rust belt city — from how cultishly locals love it to how coasters judge it! It does make me wonder why she chose Cincinnati of all places as a stand-in for the Longbourn neighborhood.
Kate: She grew up in Cincinnati! So she gets the cultish loyalty thing. Using a Rust Belt City to exaggerate the social class issue is a brilliant move, in my opinion. This easily could have been set in somewhere like Boise, where someone moves there from L.A., but Sittenfeld’s attachment to Cincinnati really allows this aspect to shine.
Maybe what I love most about it is Sittenfeld’s, “Screw it, I’ll write this the way I want,” attitude toward the whole thing. The entire book reads as though she’s having a fantastic amount of fun. According to the New York Times, Sittenfeld “wondered if it would be cheesy…but you can’t live your life worrying about being cheesy.” Agreed!
Corey: Here here!