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ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

When one of your favorite authors does a “modern retelling” of perhaps your favorite book of all time, it can go one of two ways. You’ll either end up terribly disappointed or you’ll be thrilled with the results. I am happy to report that in the case of Curtis Sittenfeld adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the result fell into the latter camp.

As part of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has recast Austen’s beloved Bennet sisters in 2013 Cincinnati in her upcoming novel Eligible. Lizzie (now Liz) is a NY-based writer for a woman’s magazine called Mascara. Jane is a yoga instructor in New York, and the three youngest Bennet sisters still live at home with their parents in Cincinnati. The younger two, Kitty and Lydia, are rather vapid Crossfit addicts, and Mary doesn’t really have much of an identity at all.

The sisters all end up in Cincinnati when Mr. Bennett has heart surgery and faces a long convalescence at home. Mrs. Bennett, who is exactly like the Mrs. Bennett in the original, is too busy to care for her husband, as she is planning a benefit lunch that takes up all of her time. But she’s not too busy to get involved when a new, eligible doctor enters the Cincinatti scene – Chip Bingley. She is all too eager to set him up with her aging, unmarried daughters, in the hopes that one of them will finally get hitched.

All of our favorite characters are here: Mr. Collins (now Liz’s dotcom millionaire cousin), Charlotte Lucas, Ms. de Bourgh, and of course, the dreamy Fitzwilliam Darcy. They’ve each been given a 21st century update, but they play their parts perfectly.

Here’s what I admire most about Eligible: Sittenfeld must have carefully diagrammed the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice, marking the precise points in the novel when Liz and Darcy have chance meetings, when she learns certain things about him, when various scandals plague the Bennets, etc., and then crafted the Eligible plot around those points, because it is just perfectly paced. She’s such a great storyteller already, but having her story match and adapt Austen’s equally compelling storytelling is just a treat.

A few warnings: there is a lot of sex in the book (some of which happens quite a bit earlier in Eligible than in its predecessor), and the end gets a bit absurd. It’s all a lot courser than Austen’s refined 19th-century England. Which is of course the point – how would a family like the Bennets fare in present-day America?

If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, you’ll enjoy Eligible. If you’re an Austen fan, you’ll appreciate Eligible. And if you’re a fan of both, you’ll be in heaven. (Due out April 19.)

Q&A with Curtis Sittenfeld

In June, I attended three great Q&As at my local independent bookstore, Politics & Prose: Curtis Sittenfeld, Roxana Robinson and Lionel Shriver. I have gotten a little behind in writing them up for EDITWB, but here is a start: a summary of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Q&A about her new book, Sisterland, which I reviewed here. While I didn’t love Sisterland, I found that her answers gave me some good perspective on how she wrote it.

Intro: Sittenfeld had a memory growing up of someone who had predicted an earthquake. She thought it was a “juicy premise” for a novel, because there is built-in tension around whether the quake will happen or not. She decided to base Sisterland on this premise, told by someone who is close to the person making the prediction. “Oh, and they’re psychic.”

Q: Now that you have a national audience, does that change your writing process? Does being famous make you focus more on how people will receive your work?

A: My last book was 5 years ago. I had written three close together, and then had 2 children. I don’t think about how a book will be perceived until it’s closer to publication. Then I get fretful, especially about the sex scenes. With this book, and my new life as a mother, I was more conscious of the sex scenes!

Q: Has your writing process changed from novel to novel?

A: Yes, because my life has changed. With Prep, I was not under contract, so writing it was a leap of faith. I hoped that someone would want to publish it. Since then, I had three book deals. I’ve needed to be saved from myself, from writing books that are “good enough to publish but not that good”. My goal is not just to sell books but to be proud of what I’ve done. Also, being a mother has made me much more efficient. It used to be that I would only write if I had at least 4 hours. Now, I will write if I only have 90 minutes.

Q: There is a gay character in all of your books. What is your inspiration?

A: My oldest friend from growing up married another woman, and she once told me that she loves my “strong lesbian characters”. Some people think that there are characters in my books for diversity’s sake, but the fact is that this is the world I live in at age 37. Characters can have biases/prejudices that are not the same as the author having them – there can be an “uncomfortable overlap” there.

Q: Did you expect Prep to be as popular as it was?

A: No. I went to the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, so I did know of people who’d had books published, people who enjoyed bidding wars over their books. For Prep, out of 15 publishers, only one wanted it. I got a $40,000 advance, which isn’t that low. With Prep, I was lucky – I had young publicists who were really into the book and found all kinds of creative ways to promote it. This made me a little spoiled and I didn’t appreciate how great an experience that was. It made me have an illusion about publishing. With The Man of my Dreams, that experience put the first one in context. I realized that it is not all automatic.

Q: How is it different writing about a real person vs. making up characters completely?

A: When you write non-fiction, people try to prove it isn’t true, and if you write fiction, people try to prove it is. With American Wife, I focused on the broadest parts of Laura Bush’s life. I borrowed the irresistible details, and made up the rest. It is hard because there was a lot of public awareness of her life, and people wanted the book to match up to that.

Q: What impact have women writers had on your success?

A: That’s a good question, but a fraught one. I’ve gotten away with writing “lady books that are still taken seriously”. Some people call it chick lit, but I think it is in the eyes of the beholder. We all live in the world and have impressions of which books are “serious”. I think of myself as being my own demographic: I write books that I would want to read. I want covers that looks like books I’d want to pick up, though the publisher decides how to market the books. “If I had to choose between sales and prestige, I’d choose sales.”

Q: Race is an integral part of the story. How much was drawn on personal observation?

A: I compare writing a book to building a nest; I borrow people, places, etc. from many different places to create the story. Sometimes I take things that I read in the papers (I had read about an incident in Wal-Mart that was similar to what happened at Target in Sisterland.) I also make things up. I tend to write about upper-middle class white women because that’s the world I live in. “I’d rather have someone be engaged with my book and find shortcomings in it than not be able to get past page 3.”

I was happy to have had the chance to hear Curtis Sittenfeld talk about her writing process. Stay tuned for more write-ups!


SISTERLAND by Curtis Sittenfeld

A new book from Curtis Sittenfeld is usually cause for great celebration on this end. I was particularly excited when I saw that she was signing copies of her latest book, Sisterland, at BEA last month. I cut my departure for the train station a little too close so that I could stand in line for the book and get her to sign it. Sittenfeld is also coming to Politics & Prose next week, and that has been on my calendar for a while. So I guess you could say that I had high expectations for this one.

Unfortunately, Sisterland was not my favorite Sittenfeld novel. (That honor goes to Prep and American Wife, both of which I loved).

Sisterland represents a bit of a departure for Sittenfeld, whose storytelling I have always admired because it is so accessible, so realistic. The book is about identical twins, Daisy (now Kate) and Violet, who have ESP or “senses”. Since they were little, they’ve been able to predict, or sense, certain things – the whereabouts of a missing child, who around them might suffer a premature death, future disasters. Vi embraces her ESP, while Kate is embarrassed by it, and, frequently, her sister. When the book opens, Vi has had a premonition of a future earthquake in St. Louis, where the sisters live, and by attaching a date to the prediction, she has attracted a lot of media attention, much to Kate’s chagrin.

That sets the book in motion. There are a lot of flashbacks to Vi and Kate’s childhood, and to the divergent paths that have led the sisters apart and back together over the years. Kate is now married with two small children, a life stage that Sittenfeld totally nails. There’s the impending earthquake – will it happen or not? How does Kate handle Vi’s controversial celebrity? Are Kate’s senses corroborating Vi’s predictions? And what about Kate’s marriage – is it solid, or vulnerable to the fissures that often plague young, tired parents?

There’s a lot going on here. Too much, in fact. I wasn’t crazy about the ESP theme, because I like my books very literal and realistic, but I was willing to suspend disbelief for Curtis Sittenfeld. But there’s just too much at play here – Kate’s complicated relationship with her sister, her troubled childhood, the role of the senses in her life, her marriage – and nothing got enough attention to be thoroughly explored.  Despite Sittenfeld’s amazing writing, and the details and observations that were so shockingly familiar at times, Sisterland just didn’t hold together for me. Also, the end takes a few turns that are sure to raise a few eyebrows – I know they did mine.

I am looking forward to the reading at Politics & Prose next week because I want to hear about what propelled Sittenfeld to take on this topic. The earthquake certainly provided a scaffold to the narrative, but I found that it was ultimately problematic and detracted from the story. By giving the ESP equal treatment in a book with many other themes, it became even more implausible than it otherwise might have been.

I am sad not to be shouting about Sisterland from the rooftops, as I’ve done with Sittenfeld’s books in the past. That said, a less-than-perfect Sittenfeld novel is still notches above many others, given her wonderful writing, and I did enjoy reading this one, despite my criticisms.

Sisterland comes out on June 25 – the day she’s at Politics & Prose. I will report back on the Q&A!


AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld A little over two years ago, Curtis Sittenfeld came to Politics & Prose here in D.C. to read from her (then) new novel, American Wife. I enthusiastically went to the reading, took a lot of notes, and wrote this post about her talk. She answered a lot of questions about the book – a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush – and her answers were fascinating. I left knowing that I wanted to read the book, but for some reason I was daunted by it. It's a long book, to be sure, but I also feared it would be boring. How could the life of a modest and unassuming woman – one whom I thought I knew - be worth spending 550 pages reading about? So I let the book languish at the bottom of my TBR pile, despite the fact that I loved Sittenfeld's Prep so much that I rationed out the pages so that I wouldn't finish it too quickly.

Well, that was a mistake. I finally got to American Wife, and it was an excellent book. Not boring at all, as I feared, but compelling and beautifully written. As I noted above, it's the fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush. In the book, she's Alice Blackwell, and while she and her husband Charlie hail from Wisconsin instead of Texas, there's no mistaking who they are supposed to be. George W.'s presidency is the same, down to the flipflopping of Florida's votes on election night, the Svengali behind the scenes, and the older, hawkish VP.

Yet as far as Laura Bush's - er, Alice Blackwell's – life is concerned, Sittenfeld says that outside of some tentpole events (the car accident she had as a senior in high school, her life as a children's librarian, her marriage to Charlie), Sittenfeld made the rest of it up. She definitely did her research, but Alice's internal dialogue, as well as the nuances of her relationship with her husband, are the result of Sittenfeld's creative mind.

Just like in Prep, Sittenfeld creates a deeply sympathetic heroine in American Wife. Charlie is flawed – at times terribly selfish and self-absorbed – but the reader can at least understand how someone like Alice ended up with someone like him. American Wife is ultimately the depiction of a marriage – albeit that of a couple who ultimately ends up living at 1600 Pennslyvania – and the sacrifices and secrets spouses make and keep to preserve their unions, for better or worse.

I had a few issues with the ending. I will leave it at that, so that I don't reveal too much. I think Sittenfeld pushed her own political agenda a little too strongly, which detracted from the character and story she had so carefully constructed. But that was just one part of a much larger book. 

I feel like I am not doing American Wife justice in this review.  It's a hard book to reduce to a few paragraphs – it's so sweeping and detailed. It was one of my favorite reads of 2010, and I highly recommend it.

One note: I went back and forth between the audiobook and the paper version of American Wife. I can't recommend the audiobook. The narrator's voice borders on robotic at times, and it bothered me. She also read unecessarily slowly. I understand why they picked her – she has a vaguely southern, proper sound to her voice – but I found it kind of grating.

Would love to hear from others who have read this!

Book Reading and Q&A: AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

SittenfeldLast night I went to a book signing at Politics & Prose by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose new novel, American Wife, just came out. The book tells the story of the life of a political wife based very closely on Laura Bush. American Wife has gotten very good reviews (see recent Washington Post and New York Times Book Review reviews). I wasn't particularly interested in reading this book, based solely on the subject matter, but I am much more enthusiastic about it after hearing Sittenfeld read from and talk about it tonight. I was a huge fan of her first book Prep, though I didn't love her second book, The Man of My Dreams (reviewed on EDIWTB here).

Here is a summary of the Q&A from last night. It was quite interesting and entertaining. This is by no means a transcript of what Sittenfeld said in response to audience questions; what follows are just reconstructed selections based on my skeletal notes.

Q: How did you imagine American Wife so that you could write it?

A: Sittenfeld said that the book is "loosely inspired by Laura Bush – very loosely". Sittenfeld is a liberal Democrat but has always been intrigued by, and liked, Laura Bush. When Laura Bush was First Lady of Texas, she would invite writers with different political opinions than her husband's to literary events. She's a big fiction reader, which endeared her to Sittenfeld. In 2004, Sittenfeld read a book called The Perfect Wife, by Ann Gerhart, about Laura Bush. Sittenfeld wrote a Salon article about Laura Bush that year, in which she said, "Laura Bush's life would be the perfect story for a novel." In 2006 she decided to write that novel.  There are four big events in the main character's life, which are based on Laura Bush. The rest – characters, situations, plots and dialogue – are all made up. Sittenfeld says she "feverishly made things up."

Q: Was it Laura Bush's car accident in high school (in which a classmate was killed) that grabbed you?

A: Sittenfeld says she was fascinated by Laura Bush in general, who seems like a "sincerely kind person," "a reserved person leading an extreme life." This tragic accident is just another extreme.

Q: Has there been any comment from the White House about American Wife?

A: Sittenfeld thought about sending over a copy of the book, but worried it "would seem manipulative." She has read articles that quote Laura Bush's spokesperson as saying that neither she nor the First Lady has read the book, and that the White House will not comment on fictional characters. Sittenfeld admits to wondering what Laura Bush would think of the book.

Q: Do you think that George and Laura Bush get along after these 8 years? Is it still a true marriage?

A: "Honestly? Yes," says Sittenfeld. "But that question would be better answered by someone who's been around them."

Q: How did you nail the summer vacation home – Halcyon – and its community so accurately?

A: "I've been in summer homes before."  Sittenfeld says of summer homes… prep schools… "they seem distinct, but they are really all the same."

Q: Did you feel a sense of responsibility writing about someone in the White House, or did you think to yourself, "This is a novel"?

A: Sittenfeld says yes. She wrote the book with "sincerity and sympathy." She wouldn't have written it if she didn't have affection for Laura Bush (after all, writing a novel requires spending a lot of time with the subject!). Someone told her that the book is"such a violation [of Laura Bush], because it is so plausible." Sittenfeld wonders, is it more respectful to treat her as flat and one-dimensional, or as more complicated?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Sittenfeld says she's not working on anything right now other than publicity for American Wife. She wrote three books in short order, and now says it would be "elegant not to write anything for 10 years… make people miss me."

Q: How long did it take to write American Wife?

A: Sittefeld had the idea to write it in 2006, even though she wrote the Salon article about Laura Bush in 2004. She was worried that if the book came out in May 2009, it would be stale. She thought that if she did nothing in the next year, she needed to write to write the book. She worked long hours and finished it in a year and half. She admits that she was "obsessed" with it.

Q: As a writing teacher, what does she tell young writers?

A: Sittenfeld says that she got great advice from Ethan Canin, her advisor at the Iowa Writer's Program, who told her that the secret to writing is STRUCTURE. Writers need to figure out how events unfold, and in what order. What elements need to be introduced before big events happen, so that they make sense? Structure gives you control over your writing.

Q: Is there a writer who inspired you to write?

A: Sittenfeld says that she never stopped reading and writing as soon as she learned how. Early books – Eloise, for example ("Like Prep, it celebrates elitism! Of course I loved it!") and the Little House on the Prairie series – were influential for her. She says she's become more finicky as a reader lately. She loves Alice Munro.

Q: Your use of dialogue in Prep was perfect- you nailed it. Did you have a sense of how Laura Bush talks to her friends? Did you do research?

A: Sittenfeld says no. She'd love to talk to someone who is friends with Laura Bush, and doesn't feel that she necessarily captured her accurately. "85% of this book is made up at every level. Only the large events are real." She says it is freeing to write fiction, because you are allowed to make stuff up!

I hope I accurately captured Sittenfeld's words and thoughts here. It was a lot of fun to hear her read from the book and talk about writing and I think I will add American Wifeto my impossibly long TBR list.

THE MAN OF MY DREAMS by Curtis Sittenfeld

I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s second novel, The Man of My Dreams. I was a very big fan of her first novel, Prep, the painfully accurate but extremely compelling story of one woman’s four years at a fancy New England prep school.  What I loved about Prep was Sittenfeld’s amazing ability to convey all of the awkwardness, anxiety, and insecurity of being a teenager with honesty and accuracy.  I admire Sittenfeld’s bravery in writing about unflattering times in her heroine’s life (for surely she must have had those experiences herself at some point – her writing is that accurate).  I loved Prep so much that I started slowing down my reading about two-thirds of the way through, only reading a few pages at a time, so that I could prolong the experience.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up The Man of My Dreams — in part because I feared it wouldn’t match Prep, and in part because of the lukewarm reviews it received when it came out.  I was pleasantly surprised.

The bad news first: It doesn’t have much of a plot. Not much happens. The chapters basically chronicle different stages in Hannah’s (the main character) love life, from age 14-28.  Sittenfeld skips over huge swaths of Hannah’s life, touching down every few years when a new man has entered the picture. As a result, the book is a tad unfulfilling — like seeing every four episodes of a TV drama and missing all the developments in between.  Also, Hannah herself isn’t particularly likable.  She’s mean-spirited at times, not particularly considerate, and self-absorbed.

The good news: Sittenfeld is an exceptionally good writer.  I found myself at times holding my breath as I read certain passages, so strikingly did I identify with whatever she was saying.  There is a famous C.S. Lewis quote, "We read to learn that we are not alone" — well, I certainly felt that way reading this book.  Even though not that much happened in the book, I didn’t care. I enjoyed reading it, and didn’t want it to end, just like Prep.

My theory is that Sittenfeld, propelled by the meteoric success of Prep, rushed her second book out a little too early. I don’t think her plot was fully developed. But in the end, I didn’t care. I still recommend it.

Here’s what others had to say:

The Washington Post (by Stephen McCauley!):

Producing a follow-up to such a major hit can’t be easy. On one side are die-hard fans and eager editors clamoring for "Prep II," and, on the other, are critics sharpening their knives in anticipation of a sophomore slump. Curtis Sittenfeld has dispatched the second-book obligation with admirable speed — only 16 months — and the result is likely to disappoint both sides just a little. The Man of My Dreams is intelligent and insightful, a leaner and more rapidly paced novel than Prep. Even though it proves to be less powerful and distinctive than her first book, it offers more evidence that Sittenfeld is a clear thinker, a canny observer and a solid, graceful stylist.

The Seattle Times:

[T]he exciting thing about Sittenfeld, aside from her remarkably lucid, incisive prose, is that she has the potential to carve out a new place, based largely on the strength of that prose, for every woman who wants to write (or read) good fiction about growing up and messing up — just the way the boys do — without being issued a stigma and a cutesy cover.

There’s also a good post (mostly negative) about The Man of My Dreams on the blog Reading is My Superpower (whose author reads 100 pages an hour!). An excerpt:

Sittenfeld doesn’t have a strong premise, nor has she engaged with some of the ideas that pepper the narrative. The book feels loose and disconnected, and I never really knew where Hannah–or Sittenfeld–stood on anything that was happening.  The structure is a problem as well. The book spans about a decade in Hannah’s life, but the moments that Sittenfeld has chosen to portray don’t connect with one another to paint a larger picture. The result is episodic and half-baked.

Would love to hear comments from others who have read The Man of My Dreams.