Austen in August: Contemporay Fiction Review

For Austen in August, I read two contemporary fiction novels with Austen themes: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld and The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t love either of these Austen related reads…
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Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

 

This modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice is the fourth installment in the Austen Project Series, a series in which six contemporary authors write a novel based on one of Austen’s works. The project hasn’t gotten the best response, and after reading Eligible, I can see why.

Liz, a magazine writer in her late thirties, and her forty-year-old yoga instructor sister Jane, leave behind their lives in NYC to return to their Cincinnati childhood home to help take care of their father after his recent heart attack. As it turns out, their help is much needed around the Bennet household. Their younger sisters still live at home but are utterly useless; Kitty and Lydia are obsessed with Cross Fit while Mary is pursuing multiple online Master’s degrees. Their mother is too busy planning her charity luncheon, ordering home wares from catalogs, and despairing over the fact that her five daughters remain unmarried.

Enter the single and suitable surgeons Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Chip has just been on a reality TV dating show called Eligble, while neurosurgeon Darcy is also the heir to a multi-million dollar California estate. Other updates include the Bennet’s step-cousin Collins as a silicon-valley entrepreneur with awkward social skills, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a famous feminist activist and icon who is interviewed by Liz. The story itself unfolds along the same lines as Pride and Prejudice.

Eligible was entertaining, but ultimately this novel was like consuming junk food; it was fun at the time, but left me starved for something more fulfilling. Even though I went into this one with low expectations, it’s still disappointing as this could have been a much better book. The reality TV storyline got on my nerves after a while, and took up too much space in the narrative in my opinion. But then I don’t watch The Bachelor franchise… There are some fun elements here, but they never reach their full potential, and the  negatives overshadow the positives when all is said and done.

Eligible is imbued with a strong sense of place as Sittenfeld is from Cincinnati herself, and includes lots of specific local details of her hometown. Most of these went over my head, but I’m sure they would be fun features for those who are familiar with the city. There are some interesting parallels between the whole country club culture and that of Regency England as well.

I think my single biggest issue was the transformation of Austen’s original characters. I hated Mrs. Bennet’s racism and the fact that it was taken so lightly by her family. I think Sittenfeld could’ve made her character snobby and traditional without adding these abhorrent elements. While, yes, Lizzie’s family is certainly flawed and downright unlikable at times in Pride and Prejudice, there is still much to appreciate about Austen’s characters.We love them warts and all because Lizzie loves them. She may be annoyed and embarrassed by them more often than not, but there is still a strong family bond amongst the Bennets.

In Eligible however, there doesn’t seem to be much love lost between the family members. Yes, Liz does her familial duty and helps out her family on multiple occasions, but she doesn’t seem to especially care for or respect any of them, with the exception of Jane. There isn’t even a close relationship between Liz and her father. I just think it was a missed opportunity to stay truer to the essence of P & P and its characters.

While I think Sittenfeld is a fairly strong writer, the short chapters made for a choppy reading experience, and I found the pacing rather uneven. There were many scenes I wished were longer, while some that I felt were too drawn out. I could’ve used more moments and dialogue between Liz and Darcy for sure. I did enjoy their banter, but felt there wasn’t enough of it.

Eligible is engagingly written and contains some very clever updates to Austen’s classic novel. Sittenfeld’s characters are mere shadows of Austen’s however, and are all unlikable and irritating imitations. This was a quick and unsatisfying read. It’s safe to say I won’t be rushing to pick up the other books in the Austen Project.

⭐️⭐️

 

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The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay 

Release Date: November 7th

 

Mary Davies, an engineer in Austin, Texas may soon find herself out of a job after major changes at the tech startup for which she works. She’s been stuck on her latest project and her new manager doesn’t think she’s enough of a team player. At least she has her work crush Nathan- a consultant hired by the company-to  distract her. But now Nathan’s stint at WATT is coming to an end, and his last day arrives before Mary can summon the courage to tell him how she feels.

Needless to say, Mary could use a bit of an escape. Against her better judgement, she’s persuaded by her father and her childhood friend Isabel, to accompany the latter on an all-expenses paid trip to a beautiful estate in Bath. Here the two will live like characters in a Jane Austen novel as Isabel gathers research for her Masters thesis. Although Mary is less into this Regency game of dress-up, she does quickly make friends with the other guests and gets swept up a bit in the quiet and beauty of the period. That said, she’s grateful there’s still indoor plumbing and wifi.

Things become complicated when Isabel-who has a troubled relationship with her father-has a bit of a psychological breakdown, and starts to believe she really is a Regency era lady. This dredges up old hurts and new betrayals for Mary. She is forced to weigh their friendship against her own heart’s desire. Perhaps she can look to Austen’s heroines for guidance as she navigates her relationships and her career.

I found The Austen Escape to be predictable and mediocre. Many of the plot points were glaringly obvious. Some parts kept my interest, but ultimately I couldn’t wait to be done with this one. The toxic friendship between Isabel and Mary was rather painful to read about. Frankly, I’m not convinced that these two had a relationship that was worth salvaging. The romance itself was pretty boring and the novel’s ending lackluster. I didn’t feel strongly for any of the characters or invested in their relationships.

I mostly felt like this was a novel about workplace drama with a bit of Austen tacked on as an after thought. It was as if Reay inserted elements and dialogue from the novels in a paint by numbers fashion. I loved that Reay included an intelligent and competent heroine who worked as an engineer. The more fiction that includes and celebrates women in the STEM field, the better in my opinion. However, I think this would’ve been more successful if Mary herself had been a bigger Austen fan. Instead, it is her deceased mother and Isabel for whom Austen means the most.

Perhaps Mary could’ve been an Austen reader who just wasn’t as gung-ho about dressing up as a Regency character, or someone who loved Austen when she was younger but who hadn’t revisited the novels as an adult. But since Austen didn’t mean much to Mary, the Austen elements ended up feeling rather secondary. Now, a novel featuring a woman engineer who is also an avid Janeite? That’s a novel I’d like to read please…

All in all, I found Reay’s characters rather forgettable, and the premise itself clichéd and unbelievable. In my opinion, there’s nothing about this novel that makes it stand out from the pack of the contemporary Austen genre. Maybe it’s also a case of my being over this genre as well?

⭐️⭐️

**Thank you to Netgalley and publisher Thomas Nelson for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review**

 

Have you read either of these? Do you have a favorite contemporary Austen related novel? 

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3 thoughts on “Austen in August: Contemporay Fiction Review

Add yours

  1. I’m disappointed to hear about Eligible being disappointing. I was looking forward to reading that one.

    I think that Mrs. Bennett is often the character that author’s struggle with the most when trying to do modern adaptations of P&P. Let’s face it: in Austen’s day, the Bennett girls would have no options if they weren’t married by the time their father died. Mrs. Bennett, silly as she may have been, had a legitimate problem to worry about. In the contemporary US (and many other first world countries) marriage is just one of many options for women that were nonexistent 200 years ago. But when modernizing it, authors too often fall into the trap of making the Mrs. Bennett character worry about the same unmarried daughters in the same way, but it doesn’t work. That or they make her into some other kind of caricature, which I find sort of unfair to her. Because even though she was a comical figure, she was looking at a reality that no one else in the family wanted to face.

    Liked by 1 person

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