Curtis Sittenfeld retells a Jane Austen classic — and sets it in Cincinnati

Curtis Sittenfeld tweaks many of Pride and Prejudice's themes in clever, often unexpected ways.

Jun 8, 2016 at 1:22 pm
click to enlarge Sittenfeld tweaks many of Pride and Prejudice’s themes in clever, often unexpected ways.
Sittenfeld tweaks many of Pride and Prejudice’s themes in clever, often unexpected ways.

Curtis Sittenfeld isn’t afraid of a challenge. The Cincinnati native’s fifth book, the freshly minted Eligible, is a “modern retelling” of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the most beloved novels in the history of the form.

Undeterred by the inevitable backlash from the original book’s hordes of admirers, Sittenfeld agreed to an invitation from the Austen Project, a series that pairs contemporary authors with Austen’s works.

She tackled the narrative by meticulously mapping out the book’s 61 chapters in an effort to find her own way into the material, and the result is by no means a completely faithful recreation — while the narrative again centers on Elizabeth Bennet and her large family, Sittenfeld sets the story in Cincinnati and tweaks many of Pride and Prejudice’s themes in clever, often unexpected ways.

In Austen’s original, first published in 1813, Elizabeth is a witty, headstrong 20-year-old young lady. In Eligible, she is 39, an unmarried Manhattan-based magazine writer who returns to her hometown when her father has emergency heart surgery. Her romantic antagonist, the seemingly stuck-up Fitzwilliam Darcy, is a neurosurgeon at the University of Cincinnati’s stroke center. Chip Bingley, suitor of Elizabeth’s older sister Jane, is a surgeon at Christ Hospital and a former contestant on a reality television show modeled on The Bachelor. And the two youngest Bennet sisters, Lydia and Kitty, are spoiled, poorly mannered CrossFit freaks.

Sittenfeld incorporates these contemporary elements seamlessly, crafting an addictive page-turner that examines how a modern woman’s social freedoms impact her decisions and create newfound dilemmas. Eligible is especially satisfying for readers familiar with Cincinnati — the city plays a large role, from its various landmarks and culinary staples (Darcy is a sucker for Skyline Chili) to its reputation as a Midwestern flyover afterthought compared to more cosmopolitan coastal cities.

CityBeat recently traded emails with Sittenfeld — whose previous novels include Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife and Sisterland — to address everything from the ongoing relevance of Jane Austen to the role Cincinnati plays in Eligible.

CityBeat: Pride and Prejudice is an iconic novel. Why did you want to tackle a “modern retelling” of it?

Curtis Sittenfeld: I was asked by two British editors, and I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. It just seemed like it would be a lot of fun. And you know what? It was.

CB: You’ve said that you first read the book at age 16. How did your reading of it change when you went back to retell it so many years later?

CS: As I worked on Eligible, I was much more focused on the architecture of Pride and Prejudice than the story — how it was constructed and why it worked so well. I was viewing it analytically rather than just enjoying it. And in places, when I was trying to write my own version of certain important scenes, it felt like I was reverse-engineering Austen’s scenes. I am dorky enough that I found this to be quite fun.

CB: What is it about Jane Austen and her work that continues to compel modern readers?

CS: The questions she asks are timeless: Will I find true love? Will I find financial stability? Why is my family annoying?

CB: Why did you set it in Cincinnati, and how did that impact the narrative?

CS: It seemed much more fun to me to set my story somewhere unexpected, somewhere that not everyone considers inherently sexy, than somewhere ostensibly more glamorous like New York. It was a pleasure for me to think about my hometown in a fictional context and to imagine my characters eating at certain restaurants, shopping, lusting after one another. My brother P.G., who’s on Cincinnati’s City Council, helped me with little fact-checking questions, and when he couldn’t answer them, he’d crowd-source them on Twitter.

CB: It’s been reported that reality TV is especially popular in Cincinnati. Any theories as to why that might be true?

CS: Ha. I have no idea.

CB: The original book dissects the social and cultural mores of its day. Things have changed pretty radically since then. How did you go about updating that aspect of the story? Were you concerned about honoring the original while at the same time crafting your own version of the story?

CS: I think it would have been more of a mistake to follow Pride and Prejudice too closely than to deviate from it too dramatically. I have always suspected part of the reason the British editors asked me to write an updated version was that I’m American, and they knew I’d set it in the U.S. So from the beginning, I’d made that drastic change, and I didn’t worry too much about making other changes.

CB: Despite knowing the story and how it ends, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the narrative and trying to anticipate what would happen next. How did you go about tackling the pacing of the narrative and keeping even knowing readers on their toes?

CS: I think the fun of Eligible is in both meeting and defying readers’ expectations. As a reader, I like to be surprised, but I like plausible surprises, not trick surprises. So I used that as a guideline. I always try to write a book I myself would want to read if I weren’t its author.

CB: This is your fifth novel. Has the process gotten any easier over the years? How has it changed?

CS: I have more faith in my own ability to finish writing a book. Sometimes I print out my novel-in-progress on the back of pieces of paper recycled from my most recently finished novel. This offers a kind of proof or at least a reminder that I am in fact capable of finishing a book, which I sometimes can forget midway through.

CB: What’s next for you? CS: Another novel. But I’ve got to figure out a topic I want to climb inside for several years! ©