This book was recommended to me by a couple of Austen-reading/Janeite colleagues at work. Mentioned it to a friend, and she gifted it me for my birthday. Have to say this modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice (P&P), was not my cup of tea. To be fair, in general think these modern retellings are difficult for all authors to tackle. Austen loving readers and/or Janeites (myself included), tend to be pretty devoted and fierce in their opinions and feelings about Austen’s characters. Tackling Elizabeth Bennet is quite a challenge. So here is the thing: really didn’t care for this particular updated version of Elizabeth Bennet aka “Liz” quite that much.
This narrative does move along quickly. The book is divided into three (3) sections with very short chapters, some as long as just a single paragraph. Ok spoilers follow.
Set in the modern day United States which still retains a class system and material elite, which the author eludes to on many levels — Jane and Liz Bennet have decamped from the family home in the Midwest, Cincinnati, Ohio to New York City. Jane is a yoga instructor, who clock-ticking, has decided to try to have a baby on her own via artificial insemination, etc. Liz is a former magazine fact checker/editor turned feature/writer at a fictional magazine called Mascara which tends to recall the departed magazine, Mademoiselle which was never as highbrow as Vogue and never quite as lowbrow as Cosmo (feel like Cosmo was alluded to but not named in the text must have been the legal dept.), but Mademoiselle had some literary roots and published a lot of high end short stories and employed certain well known authors, including the likes of Sylvia Plath.
Due to the heart attack of their father, the elder Bennet sisters rush home to Ohio. The family home, “the Tudor” aka Longbourn is still the residence of the three (3) younger Bennet sisters Mary, Kitty and Lydia. Mary a recluse, is a perpetual online student, and Kitty and Lydia don’t work but keep themselves busy with a fitness regime Crossfit. To note, they are depicted as rather rudderless individuals of a certain generation, and my favorite lines involve the Liz character asking Lydia for some stationary to write a belated thank you note, and to paraphrase Lydia answering that she has none/what would she thank anyone for, etc. Nice depiction of generation gap lapse of civility here.
The house is in a bad state, as most older houses always need repairs, plus it has been very much neglected and it is a borderline hoarding zone — due to Mrs. Bennet’s addiction to mail order/catalog shopping. Liz soon learns her folks did not have health insurance, so there is a large medical bill for the heart attack care — a wake up call to the mounting financial family crisis.
To note, Liz also becomes the confidant for everyone in her circle certain at times, which bothered me/struck me more in line with Elinor Dashwood of Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility.
Via a backyard cookout, the elder Bennets meet Chip Bingley an eligible doctor and former reality TV show contestant, apparently infamous for his on-air crying spells. Chip and Jane immediately soul mate hit it off — while Liz has a rude meet cute with Chip’s handsome, surgeon friend Darcy (mansplains much later that he was just saving a seat/requested by his host/perhaps he just should have simply said so to her in the first place — but then we would not have had that bad “First Impression” slash P&P tie-in).
Why the two (2) handsome and wealthy docs have set up shop in a small hospital in Cincinnati is a question, that is never properly answered. Thinking the Cleveland Clinic, well know for heart research/procedures would have been a better choice for the setting, but fiction here, suspending reality etc. Although not really true to Austen’s spirit, who to her own credit and acknowledge, worked in a very small geographic circle. Liz takes lead in trying to reign in the family chaos, she has her father set up a payment plan for the medical bills, takes steps to clean up the house, and retains a real estate agent all on the down-low from her volatile mother and younger sisters. In the mean time, Jane confirms that she is pregnant not via Chip but from previous baby making efforts, but before she can fully disclose to Chip, he finds out/freaks out and duly decamps for a reality TV reunion show.
The Wickham character here is Jasper Wick — a cutie Liz met at that first NYC gig fact-checking and who kept her in the friend zone forever, but they are now in a bizarre relationship, he being still married/in an open marriage arrangement until his wife inherits money. The jig is up though when he visits Cincinnati for an article, and a night of reunion romance goes very south and Liz gets him to admit that he is sleeping with a young chickie, and finally realizes it is time to cut him lose.
Somewhat tangentially during all this — Liz and Darcy start running into each other almost literally, first at local/beloved chili place and then on evening runs/jogs. Personally don’t think what Liz and her friend Charlotte call ST/sexual tension, really materializes. Their relationship, it’s more like a transaction for a hook up that turns into a routine. What Liz deems “hate sex” and I’m using a euphemism here in the paraphrasing — bedroom buddies w/out the buddies. The sex scenes are compact/perfunctory. And okay, this Liz is a modern woman who wants a physical release/outlet which she initiates, which I don’t default especially since she is in rebound mode post Jasper Wick — but seriously Darcy here is the one from the onset, asking for clarification, i.e. they are only/just friends with (physical) benefits?
And the choice for Darcy as a surgeon I do think was smart. Surgeons in my experience don’t tend to be chatty folks — career choice lines up with Austen’s classic Darcy man/of few words.
However, the whole Jasper/Darcy storyline over Jasper’s being booted out of Stanford fell flat for me — don’t think it really added much to the narrative, tension or otherwise. Again I presume, the author is trying to insert issues about racial intolerance here, but felt this wasn’t really skillfully executed and to me it read more contrived or a device that really didn’t weave well into the larger plot. Clearly, Liz already thought Darcy was a hug snob, she told him so — many times and in many ways, even while backpedaling about how she loves OH but lives in NYC, while sleeping with him, and actively pursuing that bedroom buddies relationship, or “hate sex.” While feelings can be intense, and for better or worse, can be turned around — really felt like something was off and/or missing here with these two in this depicted relationship via her actions.
The declaration scene of Darcy happens when Liz is about to leave Cincinnati for Texas for a work interview — after a long shift Darcy shows up at the door, saying he loves her/cannot stop thinking about her, and despite all his reservations, they must admit that are more than just an ongoing hookup. It’s messy but not a good spin of messy. Liz spitefully answers back, Darcy withdraws saying he thought she would appreciate candor, then Liz ruefully mulls it all over as she interviews a feminist icon Katherine deBourgh — a seemingly Gloria Steinham inspired character w/ no relation to Darcy in this version of P&P.
Then Liz is called to California by friend Charlotte who has taken up with the “Collins” of this P&P aka step cousin Willie, a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, that Mrs. Bennet was trying to match make with Liz to bail out the family debt & failed terribly. Liz goes into supportive friend mode for Char but via her online Nancy Drew, they go to check out the vast Pemberley Estate in Northern California, bumping into Darcy and his sister Georgiana. The Liz/Darcy reunion/working this all out — ensues but goes awry again. Liz returns to NYC and finally hears from Darcy — setting in motion the reunion of Chip and pregnant Jane–which rapid descends into awful “Reality TV Wedding,” that everyone inexplicably signs on for including Darcy.
The Lydia subplot involves her boyfriend/founder of the Crossfit gym being transgender which I felt was sort of a forced crisis and not well executed. Seems the author here is relying heavily on fly over, hard core stereotypes of folks that are narrow and must be coddled and/or pounded into acceptance of dealing with modern cultural differences, etc. It’s true elderly folks do have issues with change but could have been handled/depicted with a little more finesse. Adding on Kitty’s falling for their real estate agent, who is African-American, was two hits of progression to the alluded to bias and established prejudice of this version of Mrs. Bennet and the stoic Mr. Bennet. Darcy though apparently behind the scene, repairs the Lydia rift by giving the Bennets a faux explanation of a “birth defect” which really isn’t all that acceptable, especially for a medical professional. But okay hey again, it’s fiction, although personally don’t think this [plot line] is going to age well. Handling also of the Caroline Bingley v. Liz tension also was stereotypical and awful. Two (2) women lobbing insults at each other, while competing for a guy directly or indirectly, just not something I am a fan of in life or in fiction.
The reality TV show is well depicted as awful as expected — complete with the reality show producers trying to set up/stage a show down/blow out between Caroline and Liz. But Liz is too savvy even when drunk to bite/take the bait. Eventually, Darcy and Liz switch off their microphones, declare their love and clear up all the misunderstandings. There are a few short chapters afterward to wrap everything else up, ending oddly with Mary, teased throughout the book by Lydia and Kitty, as a closet lesbian, which seems to be foggily resolved as her being either bisexual/asexual but clearly a dedicated bowling team member, and I’m not sure why this all was really part of the narrative/ending at all Again sort of like a tempest in a teapot cliche — especially with some of the other story lines that played out.
Disappointed, if ABC/or someone else adapts it/for television or film, hope they will heavily reedit/rework certain plot lines.