Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Eligible is a page-turning romantic comedy which is very funny and entirely ridiculous: each of the short chapters is as unwholesomely addictive as a Pringle coated in crack cocaine. It’s clearly influenced by writers like Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. But that isn’t the point. Because with a certain punky insouciance, Sittenfeld has closely modelled her entertainment on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
The Bennet sisters are now a quintet of unmarried women aged between 20 to 40, hailing from Cincinnati: Liz Bennet is a journalist working for Mascara magazine in New York; her elder sister Jane is a yoga instructor, her younger sister Mary is a bookish student and the still younger Kitty and Lydia lead an underemployed, moneyed and faintly Kardashian-ish existence, living at home with their well-to-do parents. Jane is to find herself romantically attached to a certain Chip Bingley, the star of the TV reality-dating show Eligible, in which dozens of attractive women compete for his approval. Meanwhile, Liz finds herself nettled and discomposed by an arrogant, rich hottie called Fitzwilliam Darcy, a neurosurgeon who patronises Cincinnati women and with whom Lizzie finds herself having ‘hate sex’ before he swallows some of his pride and makes a certain ungraciously worded proposal. There are other twists and variations.
Sittenfeld is already widely admired as the author of the 2008 bestseller American Wife, another daring appropriation, fictionalising the inner life of former First Lady Laura Bush. But this is a very different, more unassuming jeu d’ésprit — part of an ongoing Austen Project, matching up contemporary authors with the famous novels. Some critics, either side of the Atlantic, have received it icily, like J.S. Bach scholars hissing and turning a whiter shade of pale at the mention of Procul Harum.