Jane Austen’s most famous novel is also one of her most frequently adapted and retold. (Raise your hand if you also watch a Pride and Prejudice movie or miniseries when you’re home sick…). Though often thought of as “just” a romance author, Austen was a sharp critic of her time and an observer of human folly. Retelling an Austen novel is no mean feat: not only must authors craft a believable romance, they must incorporate Austen’s trademark wit and satire, all while putting their own spin on things.
So today on Valentine’s Day, we’re going to take a look at three retellings of the classic story, all novels with their own take of the characters, the settings, and yes, the romances.
Part of a series where different authors write modern takes on Austen, Eligible puts “Liz” Bennet in New York City in her thirties. When a health scare brings Liz home to Cincinnati, she meets a pair of very eligible bachelors, including one neurosurgeon, Dr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Jane is, of course, promptly smitten with Dr. Bingley, who once competed on a The Bachelor-esque show called Eligible.
This was definitely the wittiest of the three books we’re looking at in this post. I loved the CrossFit-obsessed Kitty and Lydia, and other modern revamps of the characters that stayed largely true to the spirit of the originals. Mrs. Bennet worrying about Jane finding a husband as she nears age 40 shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same for women. I did feel that the game show element could have been used to better effect. It was largely in the background when it could have been a very funny conceit.
Whenever I read a P&P adaptation, I’m always looking for a few things. I like to see how the author portrays Mr. Collins, I like to see Lizzy’s standoff with Lady Catherine, and I like to judge the treatment of Caroline Bingley. Unfortunately, in Eligible, Caroline is cast as a gold-digger with zero depth, and Lizzy’s standoff with Lady Catherine is replaced by Caroline yelling at her. Not only is the shallow gold-digger type reductive, but it’s also boring. We all know Caroline is not a real threat to Lizzy/Darcy, so there’s no tension.
Read it: if you like Austen, and want a clever and quick read with just a few faults.
This “remix” of Pride & Prejudice places us in modern-day — and rapidly gentrifying — Brooklyn. “Zuri Benitez” is a 16-year-old who loves her neighborhood and has her sights set on Howard for college. But first, all she wants is to spend the summer with her sister Janae, who is home after her freshman year of college. Disrupting these plans? Two rich brothers who move in across the street. Ainsley quickly captures Janae’s heart. And while she won’t admit it, there’s something about his stoic brother Darius that attracts Zuri.
I loved this book! It mixed the familiar beats of P&P with unique themes. Zuri’s apprehension about growing up and her resistance to change are neatly balanced against the fact that she’s literally watching her neighborhood get torn down and rebuilt into something she doesn’t recognize. Her day trip to Howard, the farthest away from home she’s ever been, was a great example of how Zuri’s character development was just as front-and-center as her budding romance. I also liked that the Jane character challenged Zuri, rather than just being the sweetest of the sisters.
Read it: even if you’re not a crazy Austen fan. This one stands up on its own.
Baker relegates the familiar P&P characters to the background, bringing the servants to the front of the story in this historical fiction. Longbourn is the Bennets’ ancestral home, but in Pride and Prejudice we rarely hear of the people who make it run. In Longbourn, we meet Sarah, a housemaid. Besides doing Lizzy Bennet’s laundry, Sarah dreams of a better life. When the solemn James begins working at Longbourn, Sarah will have to make some difficult choices if she wants to be with him. But James is hiding secrets that threaten their security.
This novel is very dense, foregoing Austen’s quippy style for the voice of a historically-accurate housemaid. It also broadens Austen’s world beyond the safe confines of Longbourn, making the war feel more real and present than it does when you’re just listening to Kitty and Lydia talk about officers.
Longbourn follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice note-for-note, just on the other side of the story (in P&P, sending someone to fetch shoe-roses is mentioned. In Longbourn, we follow Sarah doing the actual fetching.). However, it also takes liberties with character motivation and backstory. I really enjoyed it, but while reading Goodreads reviews I learned there are people called Austen purists who will be Very Angry if you dare change anything about Pride and Prejudice. If you’re a purist, I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone :p
Read it: if you like historical fiction a la Downton Abbey, or if you want a really rich new angle on P&P.
There you have it! Three options for all you Austen-heads out there, or for anyone looking for a romance to read tonight. Have you read any of these? Let me know what you thought in the comments!
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