One of the Milwaukee's annual highlights for book lovers is the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Lunch. While we host lots of wonderful authors in all sorts of venues, there's something about a meal celebrating reading that just gets to me. I wonder why? Over the years that we've taken on partnering this project, stepping into Schwartz's shoes in 2009 with a Facebook note from the author getting us the great Leif Enger at the last minute, The Friends Lunch gone on to celebrate the writing of Donna Leon, Sue Miller, Elinor Lipman, Elizabeth Berg, Chad Harbach, and Shauna Singh Baldwin. This year's guest is Curtis Sittenfeld, and her new book, Eligible, is part of a very special series.
The Austen Project pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. Taking these well-loved stories as their base, each author will write their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels. Three have already come out, with Joanna Trollope covering Sense and Sesibility, Val McDermid reimagining Northanger Abbey, and Alexander McCall Smith channeling Emma.
For Jane Austen's best-known and most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, the Project chose Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and Sisterland, to offer a new take on an old classic. Could she possibly outdo Clueless, which I think is held as the gold standard for Pride and Prejudice redux? It turns out Sittenfeld is no stranger to such machinations, having created a fictionalized first family from Wisconsin with similarities to George and Laura Bush in American Wife.
The buzz on Eligible, transporting Austen's characters to contemporary Cincinnati, is great. Booklist's starred review offered this praise: "Sittenfeld has updated some of the characters and story lines to better fit a contemporary setting, but her charming retelling is a delightful romp for not only Austen devotees but lovers of romantic comedies and sly satire, as well."
Here's what Boswellian Sharon Nagel had to say: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a retelling of Pride and Prejudice must be cleverly written and wickedly funny. Curtis Sittenfeld has accomplished that with her fantastic new novel. The Bennet sisters have been transported to modern day Cincinnati. Jane is a yoga instructor, Liz, a writer for a women’s magazine, Lydia and Kitty do nothing but work out, and Mary spends most of her time in her room. The two older sisters live in New York, but have come home to check on Mr. Bennet, who is recovering from a heart attack. The storyline is one that will be familiar to most Austen readers, but with some extremely funny twists. I thoroughly enjoyed Eligible from start to finish. Even for a confirmed Austen fan like myself, there were some pleasant surprises."
Now I'm not going to lie to you, at least not in the blog, at least not right now. The Austen Project has been the focus of some grumbling among Austen devotees. Deborah Yaffe, author of Among the Janeites, complained that Joanna Trollope hewed too close to the source material with Sense and Sensibility, Val McDermid's update on Northanger Abbey updated implausibly, and well, she thought Alexander McCall Smith simply didn't like Emma. Here's also a fascinating piece about updating the story in The Atlantic, from a talk Sittenfeld gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival, discussing the politics of entail, and why keeping the Bennett sisters in their early twenties doesn't make sense in the contemporary world. In Eligible, forty is the new twenty.
What a great event this is going to be! My reading shelf is already piled precariously high, but this blog post has me anxious to add Eligible to this. How's that for hand-selling?
Tickets to the Tuesday, May 3 luncheon at the stately Wisconsin Club are $70 and include a copy of Eligible, with Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library and Wisconsin Club members eligible for $60 tickets. Patron and benefactor seats are also available. There will be a signing starting at 11 am, with Sittenfeld also available after the lunch.