The Awful Truth

Newberys Read This Year: 13

Newberys Left for Goal: 2

Newberys Left for Total: 16

 

Book: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: One Book.jpg

You might think that as a Lifetime member of JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America) I love all things Jane Austen. You would be wrong.

I certainly love all her works. I own all her novels—multiple copies of several of them. I have read many biographies and commentaries. Some I loved, some not so much. I have JA figurines, salt-and-pepper shakers, T-shirts, puzzles, games, and cards among other things (again, don’t question the crazy). I have seen and/or own several movie adaptations, again, loving some and not quite feeling the love for others (BTW, this spring’s Love and Friendship was phenomenal!). I have encountered several modern retellings of her works (Clueless, great; Bride and Prejudice, OK; the very loosely-based Bridget Jones’ Diary, hilarious). This retelling, however, of the best of Miss Austen’s works, was just plain awful.

Awful.

Did I mention that it was awful?

While reading this book I struggled with the reasons for my dislike. Did I abhor it so intensely because it did terrible things to my favorite book, or did I just think it was an awful book? Turns out, I despised it for both reasons.

At first, I didn’t like what Miss Sittenfeld did to the characters, particularly the Bennet sisters. Again, I am an extremely character-driven reader. One of the biggest reasons I love Pride and Prejudice so much is because I totally love Elizabeth. She’s intelligent, witty, intrepid, and spirited, but she is also very flawed, willing to acknowledge when she is wrong, and willing to change. I admire her because I want to be Elizabeth Bennet. Short of that impossibility, I’d love another impossibility and have her as a friend. She’s the type of person you like despite her flaws, such as being judgmental and holding a grudge.

I so did not want to be Miss Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennet. I found her gossipy, mean-spirited, rude, and extremely judgmental. Not to mention that her affair with a married man totally made me lose respect for her. Toward the end of the novel some of her better qualities came through, but not to the extent that I could overlook the so many things I dislike about her. I also didn’t like Miss Sittenfeld’s re-imagination of the other Bennet sisters. Her Jane was too wimpy, her Mary too prickly, and her Lydia and Kitty downright gross.

So initially, I didn’t like how Miss Sittenfeld made the characters almost unrecognizable from Miss Austen’s work. I certainly expected changes, but these were so extreme. Then I realized that it wasn’t just the fact that the characters changed so tremendously, it was the fact that the characters we ended up with were just so unlikeable. What I’m trying to say is that if I read this book without having ever read Pride and Prejudice I would still have thought it awful since the so many of the characters were so dreadful.

And it’s not just the characters who were so disagreeable. I also didn’t like how hard the author worked to write a contemporary novel. There were so many “trendy” topics covered in the story, such as a fiancé who turned out to be gay, pregnancy by artificial insemination, eating disorders, Cross-Fit, interracial romance, paleo diet, transgender characters, and reality television just to name some. None of these elements on their own are off-putting to me in a book (with the possible exception of the reality dating show), but all of them? It’s like Miss Sittenfeld thought, how many ways can I show that this is a 21st century novel? When you can see the effort the author puts into the craft it draws attention away from the actual story she is trying to tell. Maybe that was what Miss Sittenfeld was going for since the actual story is not hers. At any rate, I can honestly say that this objection has nothing to do with the Pride and Prejudice connection: again, I would hate the book for the extreme contemporizing even if I had never read the original. What is ironic, though, (and just like another book I commented on a few weeks ago, not in the good Jane Austen way) is that by throwing in so many en vogue issues, Miss Sittenfeld created a very dated retelling of what is actually a timeless classic.

I had other problems with the novel, but I have to admit, I’ve had it with this awful book.

Did I mention that this book was awful?

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