Sunday 11 December 2016

Revisiting Austen's conundrums of love and marriage

Fiction: Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld, The Borough Press, €16.99

Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld.

The Bennet family has migrated to suburban Cincinnati. In Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, the dialogue is modern American, but the narrative voice is cleverly remodelled from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

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The five unmarried daughters are defined by a range of contemporary relationship issues.

Intrauterine insemination (IUI), an affair with a married man and serial doomed relationships are thrown into the mix of the single girl's challenges en route to the marriage license, or not as the case may be. Jane is now a yoga teacher and Elizabeth is a feature writer on a magazine, they both live in New York, aided financially by their father. We meet them in their late 30s when Mrs Bennet, distraught by her husband's heart attack, has summoned the girls home to Cincinnati.

During their visit, Mrs Bennet goes into a spin about an invitation to a barbecue at Helen Lucas's. Chip Bingley will be there.

He is not only a doctor, but a handsome, reality TV star in a series called Eligible. The series has him confined to a luxury villa with 25 women, one of whom he must select as his romantic partner. We meet his friend, a neurosurgeon, Fitzwilliam Darcy, at the barbecue. Unsurprisingly, he is the haughty type and disdainful of local society. Elizabeth overhears him being witheringly pitiful of the Bennet girls, which sets in train the glorious challenges they both must overcome.

Jane has had to give up her spa treatments and boutique shopping in order to afford IUI. But she and Chip hit it off at the barbecue.

She is subsequently faced with a modern dilemma, does she stick with the IUI and have a sperm donor baby? Or give up the treatment, though the relationship could end and her clock have ticked its last tock. Bit of a classic conundrum there.

Lydia, Kitty and Mary provide the giddy generational counterpoint. Oddly for today, they are all unemployed and still living at home. Replete with Austenian themes of marriage, morality and education, self-discovery and social status, 'Eligible' wittily reconstructs the classic novel into an acute depiction of modern love and mores.

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