Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: April 19,2016
Genre: contemporary fiction, retelling
I’m gonna spoil the crap out of something below.
This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.
Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.
Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .
And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.
So, a Pride and Prejudice retelling. This is book #4 in the Austen Project which “pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.”
- Sittenfeld can write. This was a quick, breezy read, the sort of writing that goes down so easily you don’t realize how hard it is to do.
- She makes a lot of smart decisions in updating Pride and Prejudice. The decision to age up all of the Bennet daughters was spot-on (Jane is nearing 40, Lizzy is 38, Mary is 30ish, and Kitty and Lydia are in their early 20s); making Kitty and Lydia cross-fit/paleo addicts is pretty hilarious; and the dating show helps raise the stakes. Translating Austen’s world to contemporary America is no easy task, and Sittenfeld makes some really good choices here.
No bullet points here because I’m only going to address one of the many, many flaws with this book, and it’s going to take a few paragraphs.
I’m sitting in the airport making my way through this book, not totally into it (flat characters, no chemistry between Liz and Darcy, casual racism every ten pages (ok, I lied – I need to at least acknowledge these flaws)), but finding it enjoyable enough, particularly for travel reading. I’m about 2/3rds of the way through when Sittenfeld makes a choice that is so mind-bogglingly awful that I am staring open-mouthed in shock at my e-reader for a solid minute.
So, you know in Pride and Prejudice, how Lizzy and Darcy’s meet at Pemberley and their romance is starting to bloom? And it’s all ruined when Lizzy gets the news that Lydia has run off with Wickham? And how Wickham is pretty much the worst ever because he a) is a liar; b) is a whiny bitch who runs around blaming other people for his problems, c) is apparently an attempted serial statutory rapist; d) is so devoted to seeking his own pleasure that he’ll happily ruin anyone who crosses his path? And how it’s this huge scandal that really could ruin the whole family in a very serious way?
What is the big scandal in Eligible? Lydia (who is 21) elopes with her boyfriend (cross-fit gym owner Ham) who is transgender. Yup. She marries a transgender man who is kind and charming and supportive and financially solvent. He loves her and treats her well. Though his character is pretty thinly drawn, he’s one of the very few seemingly good characters in the book.
Is discovering that your daughter’s boyfriend is transgender shocking? Sure. Might it lead to a familial rift? Quite possibly. Does it seem reasonable that a parent might react badly, rejecting the child and her partner? Yeah. Could it lead to family members saying some truly awful, ignorant, bigoted stuff? Yes. Would it feel like a huge family crisis, the sort of thing you have to drop everything to fly across the country to help your family deal with? I guess, particularly if you you are Liz Bennet who doesn’t trust anyone in her family to behave like adults and feels compelled to swoop in and “fix” everyone.
Is it analogous to the villainous, reckless behavior of George Wickham in the original? The sort of ruinous scandal that can bring a family down? No. The fact that when faced with the task of thinking up something that would be truly scandalous and ruinous to a young woman in 2013 Cincinnati, Sittenfeld comes up with “marry a nice transgender guy” is mind-boggling. I’m not denying that Lydia’s actions might create a scandal, but purely from the perspective of the role it’s supposed to play in the plot, this just doesn’t work. The stakes are just too low.
And then there’s the Bennet family’s reactions… Oof. I was expecting the transphobia and ignorant commentss from Mrs. Bennet and the rest of the family, but what is one of the first questions out of Liz’s mouth after she learns the news? “Does he have a fake penis?” And a few minutes later to Darcy: “Ham’s on the short side for a guy, but – I never would have guessed. He has a goatee, and he’s very muscular.” I find it exceedingly hard to believe that in 2013, Liz Bennet, a 38-year old magazine writer who has lived in New York for two decades, can be this ignorant. Oh, but don’t worry. She does 20 minutes of Googling and becomes enlightened, discovering that “it was, apparently, no less rude to speculate about the genitals of a transgender person than about those.”
OH! And let’s not forget Darcy’s “rescuing” of the Bennet family from this “crisis.” In his capacity as a doctor, he explains to Mrs. Bennet that Ham’s being transgender is a birth defect, kind of like a cleft palate, and all the sudden she loves him. I will say, Sittenfeld does at least have Lydia point out that this is bullshit (“Mom understanding Ham is her problem! He’s not asking her permission for exist”), but the story seems to treat Darcy’s explanation as if it’s a good solution to the problem. As if making Mrs. Bennet feel comfortable in her bigotry is more important than, oh, I don’t know, disabusing her of her ignorant and getting her to understand that Ham is, what’s that word again… you know, one of those things that, by virtue of existing, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect? Oh right. A PERSON.
Also, wtf with turning Catherine de Bourgh into a Gloria Steinem-esque feminist who has nothing to do with the plot?
1/5 stars. Don’t read this. Watch the Lizzie Bennet Diaries instead.