Think 'Pride and Prejudice,' with reality TV, in Cincinnati

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'Eligible' by Curtis Sittenfeld
'Eligible' by Curtis Sittenfeld
Courtesy of Random House

You know the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy — a romance between two headstrong characters. There are meddling family members, serious misunderstandings and, of course, a happy ending.

But you don't know it like this.

Curtis Sittenfeld has reinvented Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" with a dash of reality TV and a whole lot of Cincinnati, Ohio.

In "Eligible," Sittenfeld swaps the English countryside for the modern day Midwest, where all the Bennett sisters gather again at their childhood home to help after their father suffers a heart attack.

Liz is now a magazine writer, Jane is a yoga instructor. Mary's engrossed in her online degree program, and Kitty and Lydia are all about their new Paleo diet. Their mother, of course, is still set on marrying them off. Enter the reality TV dating show "Eligible," and suddenly the women are caught up in a romantic drama that both plays homage to, but also departs from, Jane Austen's classic.

Sittenfeld joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about the task of re-imagining such a beloved book. Her husband, she said, warned her from the beginning: You will be "severely, severely criticized" he said, if she touched a hair on Austen's head.

But Sittenfeld was up for the challenge. The novel, she said, "toys with readers' expectations in ways that some people like to be toyed with."

"If you would say: Lizzie Bennett in 'Pride and Prejudice' is observant and clever and kind of irreverent, I tried to make my Liz Bennett have similar qualities — even if her personality and behavior are somewhat different," Sittenfeld said.

Adapting Austen, and the mandatory "happy couple" that comes with that, was a departure for Austen, how has written for other novels.

"Every romantic scene I wrote or sex scene I wrote, instead of it being awkward or writing with the knowledge that these two people will end the book not speaking to each other or being filled with regret, I knew that they were going to end up in love," Sittenfel said. "It just really affected the writing process. The whole tone of the book is different than the tone of my other books."

For the full interview with Curtis Sittenfeld, where she talks about book covers (and why there are so many featuring women with swimsuits on them) and never trusting her own judgment, use the audio player above.

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