Author Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife and Sisterland. Her most recent book is Eligible, a funny and wry modern re-telling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
The book came about when Sittenfeld was asked to participate in The Austen Project, which pairs Jane Austen’s six complete works with six bestselling contemporary authors and asks them to adapt the books with present-day settings.
“It turns out there’s only one right answer when someone asks you to do that, and the answer is yes,” Sittenfeld says with a laugh, who grew up loving Austen’s original.
In Sittenfeld’s Eligible, the Bennet family is at once recognizable and completely new. 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…of course, first impressions can be deceiving.
Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Curtis Sittenfeld to talk Austen, class, courtship and The Bachelor.
Read It Forward: Curtis, your most recent book—and New York Times bestseller—Eligible, is a great modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice. What is so evergreen about Jane Austen? Two hundred years after she wrote them, her works still seem so relevant. Why do you think that is?
Curtis Sittenfeld: I think it’s for a few reasons. The themes and questions that she examines are timeless—will I find my romantic soul mate? Will I find a person to love, and will that person love me back? Where do I fit in in my family? Where do I fit in society? And then also these issues of class and financial instability are really timeless, unfortunately.
Austen is just really funny and her jokes stand the test of time. And, she is so good at writing really satisfying sentences, which also stand the test of time.
RIF: One thing I really liked about Eligible is that readers see Jane and Liz living a life of independence in New York before they move home to Cincinnati. That sets up the fact that these are independent, headstrong women who aren’t just going to fall for anything.
CS: And they are much older too. In Pride & Prejudice, Jane and Lizzie are in their early twenties. And they are in their late thirties in Eligible. I did that because it was ridiculous to think that their mother could be plausibly getting worked up about their being single if they were in their early twenties.
RIF: Well speaking of Mrs. Bennett, in Eligible, she still wants to marry off her daughters as quickly as possible, while they are still of “eligible” marrying age. But I felt that you didn’t make Jane and Liz as panic-stricken about coupling up as their forbearers were. Are you making a statement about these sorts of long-standing courtship rules? And do you feel that your heroines get to buck tradition at all, or at the end, are they just marching into marriage like their predecessors?
CS: That’s a good question. I would say that I feel like some of the same pressures exist for Jane and Liz. There is still pressure to marry, but actually, they can have happy, satisfying lives without giving into those pressures. So it’s kind of saying, while you might be judged, or you might be asked these annoying questions, you really answer to yourself a lot more, instead of answering to your parents, or to society. I think society, or your parents hold you accountable in so far as you let them. But yeah, I didn’t mean for Eligible to be a political manifesto, because if I had, I just would have written a political manifesto instead, and it might have been shorter and easier.
But, one thing I believe, that I think ends up being true for the Bennet sisters in my version, is that there are different ways to lead a satisfying life as an adult woman. There is not one set of things you can do. And I think that in the early 1800s, there was much more of a sense of you can only do one set of things, although, of course, interestingly, Jane Austen herself never married.
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RIF: Marriage today is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Do you think society is still as marriage-obsessed as they were in Austen’s time?
CS: I would say, of course, individually it varies. But I think as a society, we are pretty marriage obsessed. If you look at how much people spend on weddings, especially in proportion to their savings, I think it’s pretty eye-popping. Or when you think about shows like The Bachelor, which I looked to as inspiration for a plot line in Eligible. It’s really interesting that the goal of those shows clearly is not to fall in love; it’s to find a husband or a wife. And they are pretty explicit about it. I mean on every finale, jeweler Neil Lane appears with a suitcase of engagement rings! The proposal is very much a part of the whole thing. The goal is not to hit it off with someone, but to become engaged. While I was working on Eligible, I watched two entire seasons of The Bachelor, and during the most recent season, on the segment after the finale, called “After the Final Rose,” the producers brought in Ben’s pastor from home just in case he and Lauren wanted to spontaneously get married on stage, on live TV. Which, to Ben’s credit, he declined.
RIF: Right, the concept of these shows is so odd. No one really blinks an eye at the fact that, at the beginning there are 20 women, and at the end, there are two—and one of them is going to get married. It’s a little bizarre.
CS: Yeah, yeah, totally. And it’s interesting, because I do wonder, as a writer, how much our obsession with marriage is because it’s actually narrative in nature. Marriage is such a—I mean not in a life—but in a story, it’s a culmination. I wonder if we want people to get married just because it’s the next logical thing in the timeline? But there’s no reason for people to get married who shouldn’t be married to each other just because it’s narratively satisfying for the audience.
RIF: In terms of the characters in Eligible, did you deviate at all from the original text? Is there a Jasper in Pride & Prejudice? I couldn’t match him up exactly to anyone from Austen’s version…
CS: Well I did something, which readers may, or may not pick up on, but there is the character of Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, who is, spoiler alert, the villain of the book. He actually serves so many roles in Pride & Prejudice that it just seemed that, for me to make my book at all plausible, I had to break him into multiple characters. So he is a character named Ham Ryan. And then he is also Jasper Wick. And therefore, Jasper Wick in Eligible is supposed to be a lot like Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice. But, of course, you know, the characters are also allowed to evolve a little bit, and that’s where Ham comes in.
RIF: Are there any characters in Eligible that you modeled after people in real life?
CS: Well, as for real life counterparts, at one point in the book, Liz, who is a writer at a women’s magazine, interviews a well-known, 80-year-old feminist icon. I’ll let readers come to their own conclusion, but I think she is fairly recognizable. But I think that the characters are more drawn from Pride & Prejudice than from real life.
RIF: Curtis, you’ve written Prep, American Wife and now Eligible. It seems that you love to write about the social norms that we see so embedded in our society. What is so fun about dissecting these?
CS: Well, it’s funny because, I definitely agree that I do that, and yet I don’t really choose the themes and then create a structure. It’s more that I create a structure or a plot for a book, and then the themes arise from out of that structure. I think that class is part of all of our lives. There are so many encounters that we have every day, for instance, if you go to a coffee shop, and you’re the one buying a cup of coffee, and somebody is selling it to you, there is class implied in that. So it’s in almost every encounter we have, even though we don’t always think about it. And we even make judgments about each other based on our accents, our grammar, or our syntax. So a lot of what might be classified as commentary in my books, more bubbles up as I write a scene rather than my consciously trying to make a point. You almost can’t escape these things from popping up, because it’s omnipresent, like the air we breathe.
RIF: In comparing and contrasting Pride and Prejudice and Eligible, I noticed that, in your version, each sister has a physical hobby that she gravitates towards. Jane is a yoga instructor. Liz loves to go for a run. Mary—no spoilers—is a member of a secret society and goes somewhere every Tuesday evening, and the younger sisters are CrossFit-obsessed. Was this the modern equivalent of them sitting around doing needlework and playing the piano?
CS: That’s funny. I guess I didn’t consciously think that they all have sort of athletic endeavors, until you pointed it out. Sometimes you can write a book and not really have perspective on it. But I would say yes, we all have to keep ourselves busy somehow, so instead of playing cards, or playing the piano, these are the Bennet sisters’ hobbies.
RIF: And, if back in the day, your excellent needlework, and your piano-playing skills would make you a good wife, then keeping a hot bod is maybe the modern equivalent of that?
CS: That’s true. That’s true.
RIF: One thing you and I have in common is that we’ve both lived in Ohio, so I loved that you set your book in Cincinnati. I thought Cincinnati was the perfect, modern equivalent of the country moors north of London where Austen set Pride and Prejudice. If you have never lived there before, you might think ‘ugh, this place is terrible.’ But if you are from there, you think the town is a total gem.
CS: Yeah I do think Austen’s characters, especially Darcy, think that living in a village would be claustrophobic, or that nothing exciting would happen, which I think is an impression that a lot of people have of America’s Midwest. I am a native of Cincinnati, and though I haven’t lived there in adulthood, I just thought it would be fun to set Eligible there. One of the forms of prejudice in the book—and pride—is the Midwestern defensiveness, versus the appreciation for the Midwest. Different characters embody both of those at different times.
RIF: Right. Darcy moves to Cincinnati begrudgingly, absolutely sure he’s going to hate it. But he becomes a huge fan of Skyline Chili, which is a Cincinnati staple.
CS: Right? It’s the secret ingredient they use—cinnamon. Mmm, I love Skyline too.
RIF: In fact, you should probably arrange a partnership with them…
CS: I know! Someone did say to me, ‘did Skyline Chili pay you to mention them in your book?’ I said, ‘oh, if only!’ But maybe I should do a reading at a Skyline…so all fans of Eligible can eat some delicious chili.
Original Illustration: Michele Svengsouk
Author photo: © Jerry Bauer