If you’re concerned about zombies — and let’s face it, who isn’t? — take heart in Jane Austen. Over the past two centuries, her novels have endured an inexorable horde of adaptations that would have ripped the covers off any lesser works. The battle reached its fiercest pitch in 2009, when Seth Grahame-Smith unleashed the undead on the Bennets in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” But even that bloodbath of parody couldn’t close the gates. New Austen-inspired comedies, romances, mysteries and horror novels keep lumbering off the shelves.
The most formidable of these reanimated books have emerged from the Austen Project, which is enlisting best-selling authors to “modernize” her six beloved novels: Joanna Trollope took on “Sense & Sensibility ,” Alexander McCall Smith rewrote “Emma ,” and Val McDermid added vampiremania to “Northanger Abbey.” So far, the updates haven’t produced any new classics, but they’ve given reviewers a chance to moan in unison about “a truth universally acknowledged.”
Now, the first American author has contributed to the Austen Project: Curtis Sittenfeld brings us “Eligible,” a modern-day retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” As the author of “Prep,” Sittenfeld demonstrated a clever eye for the behavior of young women, and in “American Wife,” inspired by Laura Bush, she explored the tension between class and crass — all of which would seem to be excellent prerequisites for whisking the Bennets to the 21st century. Expectations have been running high for months.
“Eligible” opens in Cincinnati — Sittenfeld’s home town — with a scene that will feel charmingly familiar to anyone who knows “Pride and Prejudice.” There’s Mrs. Bennet calculating the availability of Mr. Bingley, who has recently arrived in town looking for a wife. There’s Mr. Bennet barely suppressing his irritation. And Lizzy is still the bright second daughter — although now almost twice as old as her Austen original — wittily observing all these personalities while navigating the cross-currents of her own heart.
But in this reiteration, Chip Bingley isn’t just a handsome gentleman; he’s a handsome doctor and a former contestant on the reality TV dating show “Eligible.” His proud friend Mr. Darcy is a brain surgeon. Such updates continue down the cast of characters, from Lizzy, now a magazine writer, to Jasper Wick, just as dangerous as Mr. Wickham, but with a new and more odious secret past.
The basic elements of Austen’s plot have been neatly rehabbed, too. Mr. Bennet, you’ll recall, had no sons to inherit his estate, which threatens his family with the eventual loss of their home. Sittenfeld’s Mr. Bennet faces crushing medical bills, which will just as surely leave his family homeless. Other translations to our modern times are equally as creative: Artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery add complications inconceivable to a society once determined by primogeniture laws.
As a long game of literary Mad Libs, “Eligible” is undeniably delightful. Airplanes for horses! Texts for letters! Tedious Cousin William is now a tedious Web programmer. And Darcy’s notorious marriage proposal sounds hilariously rude in the sterile language of his medical mind: “It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex,” he tells Lizzy, “but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Who could resist that?
Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire. After all, just as the Austen Project recasts Regency romance in the 21st century so “The Bachelor” recasts modern dating in terms of Regency courtship. In either direction, the mashup is just as awkward and hypnotically bizarre.
Unfortunately, though, Sittenfeld pulls back far too soon, and her novel grows sentimental when it should develop real bite. No matter how up-to-date “Eligible” might be, anachronisms lie around the story like lace doilies at McDonald’s. The Bennet sisters are thoroughly liberated women weirdly corseted by old-fashioned attitudes about marriage. And Sittenfeld’s dialogue, usually so contemporary, can suddenly grow arthritic with costume-drama formality, as when Mr. Bingley says to Mrs. Bennet, “I wouldn’t want to offend your sense of propriety.” That, madam, offends my sense of reality.
It helps tremendously that “Eligible” moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props isn’t sufficient to modernize “Pride and Prejudice,” even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often “Eligible” delivers humor that’s merely glib or crude. In the middle of the novel, Liz interviews a Gloria Steinem-esque character, and their encounter promises a sharper feminist perspective, but once again the scene never delivers the social insight that could push this story beyond merely a diverting lark. And watching Liz straddle Darcy in bed for a rousing session of what they call “hate sex” won’t get us there either.
Modern-day Mrs. Bennet is a snob, a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite, but she’s got the right idea when she says, “I’ve always far preferred a good book.”
We already have that book. We’ve had it for 200 years. And it’s worth rereading.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On April 28 at 7 p.m., Curtis Sittenfeld will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House. 512 pp. $28