It could have gone horribly wrong. A contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice, set in middle America, of all places, updated to the tastes and cultural reference of the selfie-taking Kardashian-watching generation. And yet Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s new take on the Bennet-Darcy courtship is perfectly true to the spirit of Austen, offering wry and witty social commentary.
We’re in Cincinnati, Ohio, and our Lizzie is Liz, a cool-as-a-cucumber magazine journalist who has everything together except for her romantic life, which she is wasting being The Other Woman for Jasper Wick. Jane is a yoga instructor on the brink of choosing motherhood by way of sperm donor, and Lydia and Kitty are fitness-obsessed twentysomethings still sponging off their parents and buying into the current vogue for the paleo diet.
With Mr Bennet recuperating from surgery and their mother at her wits’ end, Jane and Liz leave their New York lifestyle for their childhood home, and the stage is set. Enter doctor slash reality television star Chip Bingley, his atrocious sister, and their arrogant but brilliant surgeon pal Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Eligible is endlessly entertaining and the fact you know where it is going from the outset doesn’t make it any less so. Sittenfeld, the author of the equally excellent novels Prep and American Wife, offers a story that is ripe with humour but remains as attuned to contemporary nuance as Austen; how fitting, for example, that drippy Mr Collins has been reborn as a Silicon Valley billionaire who struggles to talk to women.
Austen purists might rail at some of the switches, but whether it’s Liz and Darcy having passionate hate sex (both want to be on top, naturally) or middle-child Mary pursuing endless degrees but never accomplishing anything, I adored this book and quite simply devoured it. Sittenfeld’s version, out on 21st April, is perhaps frothier and easier to read than the original but it still upholds everything that is great about it.
Out in May, and telling a story somewhat grittier than either Sittenfeld or Austen would countenance, is Girls on Fire, an examination of how female friendship can rage and burn and eventually poison. There are the usual Mean Girls and nerds, but this is far more than your average tale of teenage angst. Set in 1994, Robin Wasserman’s heroines are Kurt Cobain outsiders in a going-nowhere town, seething with the sense that the world owes them something more. As the story flits between their perspectives and those of other players, it hurtles towards an unsettling but gripping finale.
Fans of this might also enjoy Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, which is out in paperback on 21st April. Knoll tells the story of a woman coming to the terms with a brutal gang rape a decade later, as she prepares to marry Mr Right on Paper. Suspenseful and sharp, reading it will be made all the more poignant by the fact that Knoll recently revealed that the horrific crime she describes is drawn from personal experience.
For a non-female led thriller – unusual in this post Gone Girl world – Nick Belsey is a brooding detective solving a mystery involving a damaged celebrity, a possible stalker and a trail of bodies. House of Fame, out on 14th April, is Oliver Harris’ third novel about Belsey and London’s seedy underbelly, and it races along; perfect for a one-sitting read.
For a less intense read, Katherine Webb’s The English Girl is a charming story of female explorers in Oman at the tail end of British influence in the region, chock-full of well-spoken folk drinking gin and tonic and trying not to get too sunburnt. Joan Seabrook is in the country to follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Maude Vickery, who crossed the Arabian desert by camel decades earlier but was narrowly beaten to first place by a male explorer. Struggling with an engagement that isn’t quite right and seeking to come to terms with her father’s passing, Joan’s friendship with the now elderly and highly acerbic Maud provides a lifeline. It also sets mild-mannered Joan off on an improbable adventure helping an insurgent force to escape British clutches. Webb is a historian by training and she has done her research exhaustively, so that what could have been simply a light fictional tale is greatly elevated. Out now.
Lastly, what do you know about Alabama in the 1920s and 1930s? Until reading Virginia Reeves’ Work Like Any Other, out on 7th April, my entire reference point was To Kill a Mockingbird. But Reeves is telling a very different story, albeit that racial injustice is always in the backdrop. Roscoe T Martin is in prison, charged with the death of a man on the electricity lines he stole to make his wife’s ancestral home profitable. It’s a modern prison, where work is seen as vital for rehabilitation, but still it is a cage and the guards are as sadistic as ever. Reeves tells several stories; why Roscoe took the risk he took and the toll on his loved ones, but also of how a man survives incarceration while being haunted daily by the ghosts of those he has lost. Her writing is poetic and dramatic and Roscoe’s rise and fall is utterly heartrending.