It was an offer she couldn’t refuse. In late 2011, HarperCollins UK approached author Curtis Sittenfeld about penning a modern update of Jane Austen’s beloved classic, Pride and Prejudice. “I thought, How can I resist? This could be so much fun,” says Sittenfeld, whose previous novels include Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland. The result is Eligible, published by Random House in April. And here’s the best part—it trades 19th-century England for present-day Cincinnati.
“I think something an English village and Cincinnati have in common is that outsiders might think, Oh, they’re not that interesting. But if you live there, you realize there’s drama and intrigue all around you,” says Sittenfeld, who will lead a discussion at the Mercantile Library on May 4. A St. Louis transplant for the past nine years, she has found new insight into her hometown of Cincinnati, experiencing first-hand the sort of friend-freeze so many outsiders have complained of here. “There’s a decorum, or politeness that sometimes can be superficial,” she says of both cities. “Somebody will be very friendly upon running into you in the grocery store, but it can take a very long time to become a true friend.” Having been both an enveloped insider and cast-out interloper, Sittenfeld can sympathize with the social landscape even a well-heeled new arrival like Fitzwilliam Darcy—a neurosurgeon at UC’s Comprehensive Stroke Center—might be up against.
Eligible is the fourth update published as part of The Austen Project launched by HarperCollins UK, which aims to pair “bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.” Sittenfeld, who first read and was hooked by Pride and Prejudice in high school, was given free rein by the publishers when it came to adapting it. She keeps the spirit, plot, and characters close to the original—handsome, affable bachelor Charles “Chip” Bingley, along with his brooding friend Darcy, arrive in town to great fanfare; the social-climbing Mrs. Bennet schemes to link them with the eldest of her five daughters; missed opportunities and misunderstandings ensue, before a happy ending neatly pairs everyone off—but with some clever refreshment. Eligible’s Chip Bingley is not only a doctor, but has also completed a turn on a reality TV dating show called Eligible. Jane and Liz Bennet are still single (woe!) but Sittenfeld aged them by more than a decade into their late 30s. “[Today] it would be ludicrous, even for a marriage-obsessed mother, to try and marry off her daughters in their early 20s,” she says. Kitty and Lydia, the youngest Bennet sisters, are now self-absorbed CrossFit fanatics, and mousy middle sister Mary is pursuing yet another advanced degree. And while Mrs. Bennet remains reminiscent, Sittenfeld throws a lot of 21st century at her, including donor insemination, racial integration, and transgender issues.
Though the story exists largely in a particular slice of Cincinnati’s social scene—the S Class–driving, Carol Trotta–wearing, country club–lunching, charity-auction-chair types—Eligible also ranges across the New York media landscape (Liz is a freelance journalist), the scripted underbelly of reality television in Los Angeles, and the enviable geography of northern California, which serves as the updated location for Darcy’s 19,000-square-foot Pemberley estate. But the parlor game local readers will undoubtedly play is, Did Sittenfeld get us right? So I’ll go first: yes, but with two caveats. I think Boca is too fancy for a first date, and never in 12 years have I seen someone crush their oyster cracks over a plate of Cincy chili, like quotidian Saltines in chicken soup (oh, the affrontery!). Everyone knows whole crackers are to be placed, individually, atop the cheese. “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard,” Sittenfeld responds with a laugh when I present my cracker observation to her. “When people get really nitpicky, I’m actually reassured. It’s not like you’re saying I got the whole ethos of Cincinnati society wrong. It’s such a minor thing and so subjective, that I can live with that.”
That said, when Liz learns Darcy doesn’t merely tolerate, but actually enjoys Skyline, it’s a sign of assimilation perhaps only locals will fully appreciate.