I guess it’s very nineteenth-century of Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld to publish under a male pseudonym, and I realize it’s her authorial name, but it struck me as odd for a piece in the Austen project, given that Austen was one of the first to publish as a woman and forego the fiction of male authorship.
Some reviewers have panned this book, some because it’s an Austen remake. As someone who absolutely adores Pride & Prejudice, I would never dismiss someone for writing an Austen homage novel. I enjoyed listening to this novel because I love Pride & Prejudice and all of the characters, but there were several elements of this remake that I did not enjoy or that puzzled me.
First, the sexual tension (or ST, as it is referred to in Eligible), is crucial to Pride & Prejudice. How can there be that tension when Darcy and Liz sleep together so early in the novel–and in such an anticlimactic way? That was seriously disappointing and contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the novel. I do not object to the more modern nature of the conceit–I object to the fact that the conceit was not carried out in a way to retain the tension crucial to the original–the whole reason, likely, that readers have continued to make this Austen’s most popular novel. I wanted to see what Sittenfeld was going to do. I did not care that much about the two characters “finally” getting together because they had already gotten together.
Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennett is true to the primary character traits found in Austen’s Liz for the most part, but she is just less likable and, at times, less believable. She cannot stand Darcy, but spills her guts to him when they meet up during a run and then, oops, realizes to whom she is talking. Liz is a journalist and lives in New York City, so presumably is fairly sophisticated, but when she learns her new brother-in-law is transgender, she asks a ridiculous question about his genitalia and seems more like her Midwestern backward mother than the urbane woman Sittenfeld is trying to portray.
Mrs. Bennett is racist, a lovely characteristic, and a shopaholic. She avidly desires her daughters to marry, but reacts very poorly to Lydia marrying a handsome, successful man because he is transgender. Sittenfeld’s situation here, a replacement for Wickham’s abduction of the underage and desperately naive Lydia, just does not work. It makes Mrs. Bennett too awful and Darcy’s intervention underwhelming and uncompelling. It also makes the crucial scene where Liz receives the letter about Lydia’s abduction and Darcy’s reaction to it, which she misreads so terribly, also not work in Sittenfeld’s version. The stakes are too low, the situation too ridiculous, even if likely in today’s conservative Midwest.
Throughout the novel, Lydia accuses Mary of being a lesbian. When Mary learns that Lydia has married a transgender man, she gleefully calls Lydia a lesbian. Again, tone deaf on this whole sexual identity issue. Most bizarrely, Sittenfeld ends the novel with a profile of Mary including her choice of dildo, frequency of its use, personal hygiene practices (no shaving) that seems to be mocking the only woman in the novel who does not follow at least some element of conventional femininity. Mary cannot just be a woman content to be herself with her own independent pursuits. She must be a caricature of a feminist, although a feminist who definitely does not want to be thought to be a lesbian and who relishes calling her sister one for marrying a transgender man. Ugh.
That this is the Pride & Prejudice chapter in the Austen Project is seriously disappointing. That this was published to such fanfare is seriously disappointing. Regardless, my family did not see me without headphones, finding excuses to listen to the book (biking, gardening, cleaning) for several days as I lost myself, again, in the story of Liz and Darcy. God help us if this becomes a movie, but I fear it may.