‘Eligible’ and the Tradeoff of Updates

eligible-by-curtis-sittenfield-2016-x-200 I stayed up too late reading “Eligible”;  I snorted with laughter; I rejoiced in Curtis Sittenfeld’s clever updates  to plot points in the original and in her cool, dry wit.

Sittenfeld, an accomplished creator of her own plots and characters, here  was given the literary counterpart of a paint-by-number kit: Austen’s people, Austen’s plot, Austen’s wit. But make it modern, please.

Some things are obviously funny, like making Lydia and Kitty crass devotees of CrossFit and paleo diets; others more subtly so, like framing the Jane/Bingley subplot with a “Bachelor”-like reality show. It might seem an unfavorable contrast of “romantic” Regency England  with tawdry early 21st-century America. But courtship in Jane Austen’s time was like a reality show: It took place  in public, your most private feelings were everyone’s business, and the stakes were excruciatingly high. Sittenfeld’s metaphor is as much an indictment of the world of Jane Austen as that of “The Bachelor.”

And the slyer jokes keep coming:  With characters named Liz Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, I kept waiting for someone to say something about it, for a nod to the master (as in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,”  when Fielding gives us Bridget watching Colin Firth as Darcy on TV), but it never came. Nobody mentions Jane Austen; no one even reads a book.  And then I realized: We are in a world where there is no “Pride and Prejudice,” no Jane Austen.

Holy shit! The disciple has slain the master, and appropriated her characters. Sittenfeld is playing for keeps here.

So, how did she do?

It’s impossible, even  for the best-selling author of “Prep” and “American Wife,” to go up against Jane Austen.  It’s a question of how gracefully you lose. Sittenfeld’s defeat was glorious: “Eligible” is hilarious, satirical and entertaining.

Novel-writing often seems a tradeoff between character and plot, succeeding at one at the sacrifice of the other. As a reader, I find  well-plotted novels fun to read, but well-characterized ones more deeply satisfying. (As a writer, I admire  both; neither is easy.)

Sittenfeld  has stuck  closely to the structure of “Pride and Prejudice.”   Consistently ingenious, yet at  moments   you almost hear the gears grinding, as characters do things because the plot demands it. Ideally plot should reveal character, not subsume it. But this is  easier said than done.

Characters should not be so hard, for Austen has already created them.  Lizzie: quick-witted, feisty, yet ultimately on the side of decorum. Darcy: proud and aloof but essentially decent. Though “Pride and Prejudice” is rife with diverting subplots, the essence of the story is the satisfying way that Darcy and Elizabeth find their way to each other, overcoming misunderstanding to acknowledge their attraction. This seems less  convincing in “Eligible,” and a big reason is Liz.

Elizabeth is the key to “Pride and Prejudice.”  Austen gives us access to other character’s minds at moments — we learn early on that Darcy is attracted to her — but it is chiefly Elizabeth. We are invited to participate as she misreads people and situations; her dawning awareness of the ways she’s been wrong (about Charlotte Lucas, about Wickham, about Darcy) is another of the book’s pleasures. Austen manages all this within a limited field of action; there is little Elizabeth can do, except observe, wait, and accept or reject any marriage offers that might come her way. This is the life of a gentleman’s daughter circa 1800.

So how would Elizabeth’s character reveal itself in a woman of our less restrictive age? She’s attractive, clever and confident, but too quick to jump to conclusions. She’d probably be successful in her career, and she’d likely have no trouble finding love; even if  initially was attracted to the wrong person, she’d figure out he was a mistake and move on.

Sittenfeld’s problem might be exactly this: she’d be fine. 

Modern Liz is older, a magazine writer in New York, with a crazy family back in Cincinnati. So far, so good. She’s also got a hopeless attachment to a manipulative boy-man that goes on for years — her equivalent of the winsome but ultimately sleazy Wickham. And here,  difficulties start to appear.

Elizabeth never risks her heart on Wickham — Austen makes it clear that Elizabeth’s attraction to Wickham is physical and transitory. When he turns his attentions to freckled little Miss King, newly in possession of 10,000 pounds, Elizabeth shrugs. If the experience makes her more cynical, it does not teach her anything that she did not know already —  people without money must marry carefully.

How can this  translate to the 21st century, when we expect to work for a living, not marry money?  How do you make it plausible that an attractive, intelligent woman is pushing 40 without ever having found love ? In real life, it’s possible she just never met the right person; in fiction, you need a better reason.

Some readers have complained that Sittenfeld’s Liz is unlikable. She’s far more sharp-tongued than the original, she’s conducting an affair with a married man, etc. I was fine with all that. But  I had trouble believing in central aspects of her character.

In particular, her attachment to the Wickham figure, Jasper. Austen’s Elizabeth, if misguided or hasty in her judgments,  has a fundamental self-respect, (as we see when she refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal, or stands up to Lady Catherine), and a core of common sense. Despite being half Liz’s age, we feel Elizabeth would have seen through Jasper’s bullshit much sooner than Liz does.

Liz’s inability to quit Jasper is an essential trait, because it keeps her from  finding a person worthy of her until the moment the story needs her to do so, at age 38, in Cincinnati. It’s her tragic flaw, yet it didn’t feel organic to me.

This is one moment where I hear the gears grinding. Another is at this story’s equivalent of when Elizabeth, on her trip to Derbyshire, learns of Lydia’s elopement. Elizabeth gets a visit from Darcy at the inn just then; she is so overcome that she tells him what’s happened and bursts into tears; he is somber and thoughtful. Things had been going very well between them, but now it’s over. She must immediately head home; additionally, her family’s honor — and her marriage prospects — have been wrecked by this scandal. Just when she’s come to like and admire Darcy, and to think he might still like her, he’s out of reach.

In “Eligible,” Darcy has invited Liz out for breakfast the morning after a wonderful dinner party at his estate. The sexual tension between them is vast, but also Liz finally understands she really likes him. He goes into the restaurant and she gets a text, which she makes the mistake of stopping to read. She is so devastated by the news that she asks Darcy to take her to the airport at once for the next flight back to Cincinnati.

Really?

Two problems: it’s hard to think of something as shameful as Lydia’s elopement in our current age, and the way people travel has changed a lot. Together, these made this an implausible plot twist; the urgency struck a false note. Did she have to take the very first flight available? Especially since it cost $887 and involved a layover in Atlanta? Especially since there was nothing time-sensitive waiting for her? Darcy asks something similar. Liz’s explanation is  along the lines of, she’s ignored problems with her family for 20 years, and now everything’s gone off the rails. She needs to go and atone.

He’s skeptical and seems annoyed; so was I. The total of Liz’s actions and words up to this point have not led to this seeming like a believable move. It’s also right here that you realize the hugeness of the challenge Sittenfeld has taken on.

Elizabeth’s restrictive circumstances — she cannot even write Darcy a letter in reply to the one he wrote her –however unfortunate for her, are plot gold for Austen: naturally occurring obstacles. Sittenfeld’s Liz, by contrast, must be kept from Darcy by a series of improbable contrivances like this. And then a text from Georgie, his sister, makes Liz conclude Darcy and Caroline Bingley have become a couple — which she never answers, until months later.

Really? Georgie, like the original Georgiana, is sweet, shy and in awe of Liz — are we to believe Liz would have just blown this fragile girl off, regardless of the devastating content of a text? I have to think  she would have made some reply. But this would have inevitably led to clearing up the misunderstanding, which  the plot can’t allow.

The solution, as I think about it more, would have been to keep the characters as they were in Austen and let the plot go where it wanted and needed to, wherever that was. To use “Pride and Prejudice” as a starting point, as Jane Smiley used “King Lear” in her story about 1980s  Iowa, “A Thousand Acres.”

It would have been harder, and probably weirder and messier, but I’ve no doubt Sittenfeld had the writing chops to pull it off. I wonder if she ever considered it, and gave the idea up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “‘Eligible’ and the Tradeoff of Updates

  1. I agree, Liz is so unlikable. At so many points throughout I found myself squawking “OMG you absolute idiot, who are you.”
    To be truthful, Liz, the adulterous, hate-sexing, party girl personality was more like a Wickham/Lydia hybrid from the original.
    I am still not sure whether I liked or loathed this novel. The non-rage inducing points were funny.

    Like

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