Eligible: Abandon All Joy, Ye Who Enter Here

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Matchmaking books and readers would be one of my favorite hobbies if I got to do it more often—that is, if I had more friends. It is nothing short of a thrill when someone comes to me and says, “I loved that book you recommended. What should I read next?” or “What did you think of such-and-such? Is it worth the time?”

But every once in a while, I come across a book so appalling I want to shout it from the rooftops. Every once in a while, I feel like rushing from one acquaintance to the next to un-recommend a book—to remove it from the shelves of, first, my friends, and then my enemies, on a singular mission to make it un-exist. Every once in a while, I dedicate an entire blog post to a book that made me wish I could un-learn to read.

Most recently, I had this experience with Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Hating Eligible was not a foregone conclusion, despite my love for the source material. I’m not an Austen purist; in fact, I love adaptations. I’ve seen countless film versions of her novels, as well as a theatrical rendition of Pride and Prejudice, and enjoyed them all from start to finish. I even loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, if only for turning the Bennet sisters into fearless, impeccably coiffed warriors. I’m a fan of the looser adaptations, too, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary to The Jane Austen Book Club, and I laughed at every cringeworthy plot twist in 2013’s Austenland.

But Eligible wasn’t just a listless reimagining of Austen’s original; it was dull, irritating, and offensive. Parallels between the two are abundant and apparent, but usually clumsy and crude. That said, it is, perhaps, the more obvious deviations from Austen’s starting point(s) that precede Eligible‘s weakest stumbling blocks.

“Innocent until proven guilty,” you say? Fair enough.

I haven’t even launched into my opening argument.

Eligible is set (mostly) in Cincinnati, Ohio, which in itself feels wrong. Pride and Prejudice is a quintessentially British story begging for rolling hills and sleepy shires. Of all the things that went wrong with this story, though, I’m willing to overlook the setting—so Cincinnati, Ohio, it is. Liz and Jane Bennet are back home from New York, caring for their father post-heart surgery. Both are nearing 40 and unmarried, though Liz is dating the (married) douchebag who strung her along for a decade and Jane is pursuing motherhood through artificial insemination.

The younger Bennet sisters are aggressively useless. Lydia and Kitty, in their mid-twenties, are CrossFit gym bunnies who text a lot. Mary is working on yet another online Master’s degree. All three live at home and freeload off their parents, who have mismanaged their finances to the point of bankruptcy.

Enter “Chip” Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Chip is best known to the Cincinnati elite as the star of last season’s Bachelor-esque reality show Eligible. Darcy is a neurosurgeon, obvi. Each combines enormous wealth with zero personality to make a perfect catch. Chip and Jane date enthusiastically until Jane finds out she’s pregnant via donor sperm. Chip’s sister Caroline jumps on the opportunity to push them apart, because that’s a thing that happens in the 21st century.

Liz and Darcy engage in Hate Sex until, for Darcy, it turns into Love Sex. His attempt at a grand gesture is to knock on Liz’s door and announce that “she’s neither beautiful nor funny, but he’s in love with her anyway, although that may just be the oxytocin talking.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much.) A few misunderstandings later, Liz proposes. Chip and Jane reconcile in the kind of happy ending only a reality TV wedding can bring about.

A large portion of the plot revolves around Liz’s efforts to save the Bennets from themselves—because God forbid a family of privilege actually live with the consequences of their poor decision-making. Mr. Bennet, at 60+ years of age, doesn’t even have health insurance.

Lucky for them, Super Liz is around to act as cook, maid, chauffeur, accountant, real estate agent, exterminator, and mover to this lazy brood of asshats. She spends all her savings bailing them out of their various financial messes, then proceeds to co-sign Kitty and Mary’s new lease and pay their rent. You could argue, in one sense, that Liz retains the original character’s status as The Only Sensible Daughter… but a sensible person would know when to quit. Instead of rooting for her to set the Bennets straight, you root for her to wash her hands of their superficiality, disrespect, and ingratitude and hightail it back to New York.

Add to this a Glee-like approach to “social issues”—a sort of heavy-handed, transparent, [insert issue here] strategy—and you’ve got an exhausting, insufferable read in your hands. If it’s not Darcy’s anorexic sister, it’s Jane’s lesbian roommates or Kitty’s black boyfriend. I would appreciate the diversity if Sittenfeld’s main characters were any less bigoted—that is, if any of the minority characters were treated like people instead of problems.

Did I mention this book is gratuitously transphobic? The major conflict of the story—intended to mirror the original Lydia’s elopement with ne’er-do-well George Wickham at the cost of her reputation—is when Sittenfeld’s Lydia elopes with her transgender boyfriend. The Bennets are, at best, confused (e.g., Jane and Liz)—and, at worst, horrified (e.g., Mrs. Bennet). Darcy is applauded all around for restoring harmony by explaining gender dysphoria as a birth defect… because that was easier than persuading Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to be tolerant.

Believe it or not, the dialogue is even worse than the plot, which is even worse than the character development. For all her determination to update Pride and Prejudice to the year 2013, Sittenfeld clung steadfastly to 19th-century language. Here’s Liz’s response to Jane’s bewilderment at Chip’s reality TV fame:

“Oh, Jane,” Liz said. “So innocent and unspoiled. You’ve heard of the reality show Eligible, right?”

And here’s Darcy at his first run-in with the Bennets:

I’m sure they do their best, but Cincinnatians are painfully provincial.

Painfully provincial! I would call this book painfully provincial if it didn’t reflect poorly on my manners. Y’all know I’m delicate AF.

Oh, and if you were hoping for a more overtly feminist Bennet clan in this modernized take, you will be disappointed on that front, too. All of the novel’s most “independent” women—Jane, Liz, and Liz’s BFF Charlotte—uproot their lives to move across the country for men they barely know:

  • Charlotte meets the Bennets’ step-cousin Willie exactly one time at a party. After exchanging a handful of emails with him, she quits her job at Procter & Gamble to move into his house in the Bay Area. She is then horrified to discover that he snores, which should be the least of her worries IMHO.
  • By the time Liz proposes to Darcy, they’ve only spoken a handful of times, including their bouts of (so-called) Hate Sex. Liz, who loves NYC, announces mid-proposal that she knows she’ll “need to move to Cincinnati”—as if it’s out of the question that Darcy might, at any point, leave his job to live with her in New York.
  • Only Jane and Chip actually date before moving in together, if only for a brief period. She follows him to LA when he decides to make an abrupt career change, after zero discussion of her own work prospects. (Let’s hope that baby is super fulfilling, amirite?)

This book goes from bad to worse so often that the feat seems impossible—like one of those auditory illusions that keep descending until your brain implodes. Eligible, as Michiko Kakutani puts it,

reads less like a homage or reimagining of Austen’s classic than a heavy-handed and deeply unfunny parody.

Ursula Le Guin—channeling Emma‘s Mr. Knightley—declares, more pointedly,

It was badly done.

I wish I hadn’t read it. I hope no one else ever reads it. I physically cringe at the thought that Jane Austen inspired it. Not only are her subtle wit and human insight absent from this grotesque P&P mutation, but they’ve been replaced with corrupt characterizations, infuriating plot points, and belligerently shabby writing.

Has Eligible ruined me forever when it comes to Austen adaptations? Definitely not. But I must have learned nothing from Pride and Prejudice after all, because I won’t be giving Sittenfeld a second chance at a first impression.

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4 thoughts on “Eligible: Abandon All Joy, Ye Who Enter Here

  1. Pingback: When Should I Start Worrying About My Pride & Prejudice Obsession? | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

  2. Pingback: The List’s Biggest Surprises | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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