Posts Tagged ‘Curtis Sittenfeld’

eligibleI wonder what it would be like to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (Random House, digital galley) without first having read Jane Austen’s classic. What to make of the Bennets and their five unmarried daughters transported from the English countryside of two centuries ago to a Tudor house in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood? Would it be just another chick-lit tale of family dysfunction, with late thirty-something Jane and Lizzy returning home from New York when their father has heart surgery and their shopaholic matchmaking mother can’t cope? Would you appreciate the humor of having flighty still-at-home Kitty and Lydia obsessed with Cross-Fit, or pontificating Mary taking online classes for her third master’s degree? Can you buy Chip Bingley as a former reality TV star, and his best bud Fitzwilliam Darcy as an uptight neurosurgeon? When Mr. Bennet tells Mary, “Oh, put a sock in it,” do you laugh?

Alas, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times, I’ll never know. I think Eligible could stand on its own as a comedy of manners, but its sparkle comes from the ways in which Sittenfeld chooses to update the tale so the familiar becomes fresh. I love that she’s set the story in her hometown of Cincinnati with its Grater’s ice cream and Skyline chili. Many of her choices are inspired — that stuffy Mr. Collins is now a nerdy — and wealthy — tech guru; that sweet yoga instructor Jane has been having secret IVF treatments because she wants a baby; that the daft Bennets don’t have health insurance so crushing medical debts are about to render them homeless. Other tweaks feel strained — that Mrs. Bennet is both a racist and a homophobe so Lizzy hires a gay, black real estate agent; that the cad Wickham has become two characters: Lizzy’s married lover Jasper Wick, and Lydia’s latest, hunky gym owner Ham; that “hate sex” leads to love. There’s plenty of wit here but not enough romance. Sometimes Sittenfeld seems to be having more fun than the reader, and the book’s charms fray at almost 500 pages.

Eligible is the fourth entry in the the Austen Project, which pairs each novel with a contemporary writer. I found Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility ho-hum, but I enjoyed Val McDermid’s satirical Northanger Abbey, with its young heroine fascinated by paranormal stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma had its moments but not as many as the movie Clueless. In Eligible’s  “The Bachelor”-like TV show, a kiss on the lips means a contestant is still in the running, while a kiss on the cheek sends the girl home. I enjoyed Eligible’s company, but it’s a kiss on the cheek for me. I’m going back to the original.


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silverstarJeannette Walls writes memoirs (The Glass Castle) that read like novels and novels (Half-Broke Horses) that read like memoir. Her new book, The Silver Star (Scribner, digital galley) is billed as fiction, but the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Bean Holladay, sure resembles the young Walls of The Glass Castle. Living in California with her 15-year-old sister Liz, Bean is pragmatic about her emotionally unstable mother, Charlotte, a free spirit if there ever was one. When sometime-actress Charlotte fails to return home from one of her frequent out-of-town trips “to find herself,” Bean and Liz flee social services, buying bus tickets for Byerly, the Virginia hometown Charlotte fled long ago.
Widower Uncle Tinsley, an eccentric hoarder of sorts, is surprised by the girls’ arrival, but they soon settle into the dilapidated family home and the routines of the little mill town that the ’60s bypassed. Bean finds out about her dead father and makes friends. Lovely Liz has a harder time, especially when the bullying mill manager takes a special interest in her and Bean. Then Charlotte blows into town, planning to take the girls to New York City, and the girls’ loyalties are divided and tested.
Walls can set a scene, nail an emotion, spin a good story, but, despite references to integration and the Vietnam War, she casts Byerly in the sepia glow of older, simpler times. Plucky Bean comes off like Scout Finch’s cousin, and Charlotte’s ready-made for a Tennessee Williams play — or a Jeannette Walls’ memoir.
sisterlandThe premise of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel Sisterland (Random House, digital galley) sounds enticing — psychic identical twin sisters all grown up — but Kate and Vi turn out to be quite ordinary, at least from narrator Kate’s point-of-view. The devoted wife of a university professor and the mother of a toddler daughter and infant son, Kate wants to be as normal as possible. She’s frustrated that flamboyant bisexual Violet, who ekes out a living as a professional psychic, can’t be more like her. The two have gone in decidedly different directions since a middle-school slumber party, which is revealed in flashback along with other past turning points like starting school or going to different colleges.
In the here and now of 2009, Vi has announced to the world that an earthquake is going to devastate St. Louis, and Kate has a strange dream that supports Vi’s prediction. But Sittenfeld is less interested in the validity of ESP than in describing the fractures and fissures in Kate’s relationships with her nearest and dearest — Vi, her odd parents, husband Jeremy, neighbors Courtney and Hank.
The book is as intimately voiced and observed as Sittenfeld’s Prep or An American Wife, but Kate’s determination to sandpaper the edges of her character makes her dull as dishwater. I kept wondering how Vi would tell the story.

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