MASSACHUSETTS• It takes confidence - some might even say hubris - to rewrite one of the most beloved novels in the English canon.
So Curtis Sittenfeld was prepared for a backlash when word got out that she was writing a modern-day version of Jane Austen's classic Pride And Prejudice. The response from die-hard Austen fans was swift and predictably brutal.
"There have been some early reviews that say, 'Curtis Sittenfeld is no Jane Austen,'" Sittenfeld said. "And I'm like, 'Clearly.'"
Her novel Eligible, which Random House releases on Tuesday, is the latest book in the Austen Project, a series that pairs contemporary novelists with Austen's six works. So far, there have been versions of Emma, Northanger Abbey and Sense And Sensibility.
But updating Pride And Prejudice poses a unique challenge. Of all of Austen's works, it is far and away the most popular. It has been adapted into dozens of spin-off books, including murder mysteries and soft-core romance novels. There are Pride And Prejudice- theme books, including young adult novels, board books for toddlers and comic books.
So what led Sittenfeld, 40, an acclaimed writer who has published four novels, to enter the market for Austen fan fiction?
Like millions of other readers, she is a huge Austen fan. And while she knew that rewriting Pride And Prejudice was professionally risky, she was driven partly by the same impulse that compelled Austenphiles to reread the novel dozens of times: She wanted to spend more time with the characters.
"I see Eligible as a homage and I see Pride And Prejudice as a perfect book."
Like the 1813 original, Sittenfeld's novel features a headstrong heroine named Elizabeth Bennet, whose nervous, overbearing mother is obsessed with marrying off her and her sisters. Lizzy's vapid, flirtatious younger siblings, Kitty and Lydia, are an embarrassment to the family, while her older sister, Jane, is approaching spinsterhood. A rich single man, Bingley, comes to town and takes a liking to Jane, while Lizzy takes an instant dislike to Bingley's even richer friend, the aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy. Lizzy and Darcy eventually realise that they are perfect for each other.
Eligible unfolds in 2013 in Cincinnati, where Liz, a journalist for a women's magazine, and Jane, a yoga instructor, have returned home after their father has a heart attack. Bingley, the scion of a wealthy family, is in town licking his wounds after a humiliating appearance on Eligible, a Bachelor- like reality dating show. Darcy is a taciturn neurosurgeon who strikes Liz as unbearably condescending.
The novel has already proved polarising among Austen fans.
"Sadly disappointing, this book is just trying to cash in on the popu- larity of Austen's characters," one reader wrote on Goodreads. A critic for Kirkus Reviews warned: "Don't expect to get the same level of romantics and Darcy-inflicted swoon that make the original untouchable."
But others have praised Sittenfeld for channelling Austen's biting wit and razor-sharp observations about gender, class and money, and for putting her satirical spin on the timeless plot.
"Reboots are tremendously tricky, and almost the only thing that would induce me to read a reboot of Pride And Prejudice is Curtis Sittenfeld's name on the cover," Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, said in an e-mail.
Sittenfeld and her idol share fragments of literary DNA. Both write novels of manners featuring smart female protagonists who struggle to navigate the fault lines of gender identity, courtship and social class, themes Sittenfeld explored in her 2005 debut novel, Prep. Sittenfeld also shares some of the heroine's pluck and dry humour, as well as her first name. (Her full name is Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld.)
At first, she tried to write a scene-for-scene re-creation of Austen's novel, but found the process too constricting. She realised that it would be unrealistic for Darcy to propose to Liz before they had even dated, so she has them engage in no-strings-attached "hate sex". She makes Liz 38, rather than 20, an absurdly young age for a contemporary woman to worry about her marital status. And she split one of Austen's original characters, the charming but deceitful Wickham, into two characters: Jasper Wick, a married rogue who has been stringing Liz along, and Ham, a transgender man who is Lydia's boyfriend.
While Sittenfeld risks rankling Austen purists - the casual sex has caused an uproar - her looser approach also separates Eligible from other, less successful Austen updates that were loyal to the original stories.
NEW YORK TIMES
Eligible is available for order from Books Kinokuniya at $30.41.
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