In the past decade, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” has been fodder for something like 200 adaptations, mutations and spinoffs, and still it is not a truth universally acknowledged that enough is enough. Curtis Sittenfeld, perhaps best known for her first novel, “Prep,” and notorious for her third one, “American Wife” (based on the life of Laura Bush), now joins in with “Eligible” a highly entertaining romp of a novel set in 2013 in Cincinnati.
Here we find the Bennet family: Mr. Bennet has mishandled his inherited wealth and fallen into debt, a situation significantly worsened by coronary bypass surgery undergone without health insurance. He equals the first Mr. Bennet for detached, cynical wit, much of it provoked by his wife, an airhead and compulsive shopper, a woman as socially ambitious and impressed by appearances as her own precursor. As for the Bennet daughters, they are long in the tooth by Austen standards. Lydia is 23, and Kitty, 26, and both are small-screen adepts, CrossFit and paleo-diet fanatics, with a strong line in obscene and obnoxious remarks. Mary, 30, is embarked on her third online master’s degree and performs admirably as the clunky sobersides — except on Tuesdays when she embraces a secret pastime that will make you laugh. Elizabeth, now Liz, is 38 and a writer-at-large for a women’s magazine. She has been living in New York, but has returned home to help out during her father’s recuperation and to straighten out the family’s financial affairs. Jane is 39, a yoga instructor and sweetness itself, who wants desperately to have a child. Lacking a man in her life, she has turned to a sperm bank and intrauterine insemination.
Enter Chip Bingley, “scion of the Pennsylvania Bingleys,” whose fortune derives from plumbing fixtures. He is a doctor, but more to the point, he was the star of a season’s worth of “Eligible,” a reality TV show in which women court him — and debase themselves — with the goal of becoming his wife. None of them succeeded and he retains his tawdry aura of eligibility. But his longtime friend is the man we’ve been waiting for: Fitzwilliam Darcy, a brain surgeon who is appropriately condescending, disagreeable and massively rich — a prig whom, for most of the book, some of us would like to punch in the nose. Also at large is Charlotte Lucas, a little overweight, who snaps up Willie Collins, a software-development-startup multimillionaire, a smug, first-class bore and splendid reincarnation of the Reverend Mr. Collins. Also in play are Kathy de Bourg, a well-known 80-year-old feminist whom Liz hopes to interview, and Chip’s horrid sister, Caroline, who looks down her Bingley nose at all of the Bennets. She has marked Darcy out for herself, curling “toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed” as we’re thinking: Not so fast, babycakes!
Much of the enjoyment of this amusing novel comes from bouncing its impertinent versions of Austen’s characters against their originals, and relishing both the incongruity and fittingness of the modern predicaments in which they find themselves. In addition to such contemporary phenomena as consumer debt, donor insemination and reality TV, the novel includes a transgender partner; an interracial couple; a commitment-phobic, open-marriage bounder; anorexia, “hate sex” and brown recluse spiders.
In her previous novels, Sittenfeld displayed gifts for conveying the vexed nature of human motivation and astute investigation of her characters’ self-destructive, insecure, or confused souls. She does not waste those powers upon the present material. Depth would be grotesquely out of place; instead there is delightful silliness. This is a marvelous, lighthearted comedy of 21st-century manners and mores.