It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re looking for a good book to return to again and again, Jane Austen will always deliver.
When heading to the beach, however, Pride and Prejudice — while witty and charming even 200-plus years since its 1813 publication — may not be your first choice. But Eligible, a modern-day retelling of the story by Curtis Sittenfeld, who is half-Jewish and described herself to the Times of Israel as a Yiddish enthusiast with a “Jewish personality,” is certainly a choice as eligible (sorry) as the Bennet sisters.
The 2016 novel recently released in paperback came about as Sittenfeld participated in “The Austen Project,” in which six contemporary novelists were assigned an Austen work and challenged to modernize it. Now, our outspoken heroine, Liz, is a 30-something writer for a magazine in New York City and her proud but compassionate beau, who couldn’t shake the name Fitzwilliam Darcy, is a handsome neurosurgeon in Cincinnati, Liz’s hometown.
When Mr. Bennet has a heart attack, yoga instructor Jane — ever as sweet and kind — and Liz, who both live in New York, return home to be with their family, but find the Bennets are in debt and the house is falling into disrepair. Sisters Kitty and Lydia, in their 20s and heavily into CrossFit, are still living at home with no jobs. Mary is pursuing her third master’s degree, also still living at home.
Familiar characters from Mr. Collins to Georgiana Darcy are all there with modern updates and tweaks. They text. They curse. They stalk their crushes on social media and Google.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are quite the same. Mr. Bennet’s trademark sarcasm is on evident display and impatient Mrs. Bennet’s main concern is still marrying off her daughters, her hopes for sons-in-law and grandchildren quickly evaporating as Jane nears 40.
Speaking of, Charles Bingley is now Chip Bingley, who two years ago took a turn as the bachelor on the novel’s take on the ABC reality dating franchise, Eligible. His appearance on the show was orchestrated by his pernicious (to borrow a term from the OG Jane) sister and manager, Caroline. Now, he works in the ER at the same hospital as Darcy. And he went to medical school at Harvard. (Mrs. Bennet is quite pleased.)
But of course, this story takes place in 2013 not 1813, so there must be adjustments.
Sittenfeld took chances to modernize the story, and they largely paid off. She clearly had fun developing her own spin on the classic characters. Jasper Wick, a love interest for Liz, fills in for George Wickham, just as sly and self-serving as his predecessor. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is reborn as Kathy de Bourgh, a feminist author and speaker whose works Liz greatly admires.
Laced throughout the story (in between the recurring jokes about how everyone watched Eligible but pretended not to) are commentaries about society, an overarching theme in mostly all of Austen’s works. Class, race and gender are viewed through a new lens. Mrs. Bennet becomes the stand-in for that family member whose views differ with our own and promise a Thanksgiving dinner table fight.
Mrs. Bennet, the book says, “was prone to making declarations about almost all religious and ethnic minorities that were often uncomfortable for her listeners.”
Even in modern-day, diverse Cincinnati, Mrs. Bennet has trouble accepting those different from her own family. It is also discovered in a small sub-plot that Mrs. Bennet’s heritage includes a line of Jewish ancestors, which Mrs. Bennet — who is recast as a homophobe, racist and a bit anti-Semitic to boot — does not acknowledge.
Mr. Bennet, a genealogy enthusiast, discovered Mrs. Bennet’s maternal grandmother Ida Conner had been Ida Rosenbluth. Liz recalls a few uncomfortable moments where her mother has made slightly off-color remarks, such as “Jews are very fond of dried fruit” (hello, Tu B’Shevat) and that a party dress she once purchased appeared to her mother as “Jewish-looking.” Lydia and Kitty, after they discovered their mother’s ancestry, recommended she have a late-in-life Bat Mitzvah and took to calling her Jewess, which Mrs. Bennet did not appreciate.
It’s a breezy read that while certainly worthwhile, may also make you want to just pick up Pride and Prejudice and reread it.
— Marissa Stern
Girl in Snow
Simon & Schuster
Although it’s billed as a whodunit, the debut novel of Danya Kukafka really is more a character study of three unhappy individuals.
And while there’s no inherent Jewish aspect angle to Girl in Snow, Kukafka said (via publicist) that growing up Jewish in Colorado influenced the book.
“The book is very much about the experience of being an outsider in the mostly white Christian Republican suburban Midwest,” Kukafka wrote. “Our Jewish community was extremely small, and that also prompted me to write about the experiences of insular communities in general.”
Kukafka, an assistant editor at Riverhead Books, certainly captures that isolation in the days immediately after the murder of popular high school student Lucinda Hayes in a small Colorado town.
We first meet Cameron, a fellow student who loved her from afar despite being neighbors.
Cameron’s a stalker type who’s uncomfortable in his own skin. He deals with the burden of being the son of a disgraced former police officer who skipped town after a violent incident.
Then there’s Jade, another high school student, who’s your classic loner. She’s smart and sensitive, but erects a sullen veneer that prevents anyone from getting too close.
Finally there’s Russ, a police officer helping to investigate the case who has problems of his own, including a crumbling marriage and unsavory secrets he struggles with dating to the days when he worked with Cameron’s father.
The novel focuses on the days immediately after the murder, with the three characters’ lives intertwining.
While Kukafka’s clearly a talented writer with a keen sense of the disaffected, the novel does lag at times. And if you’re the type of reader who wants someone to root for, you won’t find it here.
Kukafka does a fine job of dropping hints at who the murderer might be, but the actual reveal seems a bit anticlimactic.
That said, despite the gloomy aura overall, Kukafka does create a sliver of hope for our three characters in the aftermath of the murder.
— Andy Gotlieb