Does the world need another version of “Pride and Prejudice”? I mean, without zombies? In “Eligible,” the fourth installment of the Austen Project — the retelling of Jane Austen’s novels in modern settings — Curtis Sittenfeld has turned her prodigious talents to updating the story of feisty Elizabeth Bennet and the standoffish Mr. Darcy.
Sittenfeld follows the plot and characters of Austen’s novel scrupulously, though she moves the action to present-day Cincinnati. Liz is a magazine writer, Darcy a brain surgeon, Jane a placid yoga teacher and Mr. Bingley a doctor and star of a TV reality show.
Sittenfeld is a skilled writer, and the book is an entertaining, fast read. And yet this might be a project that was flawed in its conception: So much of Austen’s premise does not translate to modern times. The ditsy Mrs. Bennet’s passion to marry off her daughters to rich gentlemen doesn’t ring true, and Sittenfeld had a heck of a time finding an appropriate modern-day transgression for the wild Mr. Wickham. (And failed, I’m afraid.)
The biggest sin, though, is Sittenfeld’s lackluster Liz — snappish, not witty; bossy, not proud; and occasionally what my mother would call “potty-mouthed.” Darcy, for his part, has a habit of responding to her tirades with a lugubrious “indeed.” (Does anyone still use that word? I mean, anyone in Cincinnati?)
The previous Austen rewrites — Val McDermid’s retelling of “Northanger Abbey,” Joanna Trollope’s version of “Sense & Sensibility,” and Alexander McCall Smith’s “Emma” — have gotten mixed reviews. Sittenfeld’s is hard to recommend.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books.