When I was growing up, part of every summer was spent visiting my grandparents. Every branch of my family would descend simultaneously on my grandparents’ house for a week or two in July every year. There was always something going on, somewhere to go or do or see, but when there wasn’t, I knew exactly how to amuse myself. I’d go off in a corner and curl up with a book—but not just any book. I’d curl up with books I could only read when I was visiting my grandmother and my passel of cousins was otherwise occupied. You see, my grandmother was a member of the Harlequin Romance Club.
For the uninitiated, Harlequin romances are the gold standard of the romance genre. It was the Harlequin company that recognized that there was a big, underserved community of romance readers and it focused on making romance available on a mass scale—inexpensive paperbacks available in grocery stores and via a monthly subscription service. The latter is how my grandmother got her Harlequins – 4 books delivered every month. Since she was a customer for years and years, and she never threw anything away, there were approximately 1,23,5.200,782infinity Harlequin paperbacks in her house. The covers were all the same: soft-focus illustrations of brooding male faces leveraging squinty, steely-eyed glances at a demurely dressed woman with blue eyes and flowing hair looking intensely at a sunset/ocean/horse’s face. There was tension in those little watercolors. Grownup tension.
I read every single one my grandmother owned, so I can safely say I have master’s degree in How To Harlequin. Every book stuck to the same idea of what it meant to be in a romance. The only thing that varied was the color of the heroine’s hair, which could be blond (best), red (okay), or rich brunette (if we have to, but don’t you have a blond sister who can tag in?) Getting to the happy ending, which was always a marriage proposal, followed these five principles.
1. Be a virgin. If you can’t be a virgin, be a widow. THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION.
2. Catch the eye of an unmarried handsome wealthy cowboy pilot firefighter
3. The moodier the cowboy pilot firefighter is, the more he needs to be married
4. Don’t put out, hold out…. for a ring and a date
5. Behave yourself. The only shade of gray you’ll find in these stories is white, because that is what a virgin who is raised right wears on her wedding day, dammit.
If you wanted to know anything about romance outside of man + woman=marriage story arc, then move along. Harlequin is not the book you are looking for. These books end the second Moody Marvin pops the question and never went one page past the proposal. I guess wedding planning was just too titillating? All those bosoms heaving over china patterns and cake fillings…SMUT.
The reason that I dusted off my Harlequin memories and waltzed them down the aisle is because I just finished reading Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest release. Eligible is a modern update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and is the fourth book to come out of The Austen Project, an initiative by HarperCollins retelling six Jane Austen novels by six contemporary authors. I wasn’t really looking for a new Pride and Prejudice experience when I picked up Eligible. In fact, I had no idea that Eligible was a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice because I was evidently living under a rock last summer when this book was released and missed the plethora of interviews and articles about it. My motivation was actually completely purposeless: I was ready for my next book and I liked Eligible’s red cover. So, yeah, I’m DEEP. For the moments when I’m actually craving a Jane Austen fix, I normally follow these five principles.
1. Read a Jane Austen book by Jane Austen
2. Put on fuzziest fat pants and turn on Clueless
3. Watch Emma Thompson’s Golden Globes acceptance speech for Sense and Sensibility
4. Write a strongly worded letter about someone’s bad manners
5. Wear an Empire-waisted dress with elbow length gloves
For Curtis Sittenfeld, however, exceptions must be made.
Eligible finds the five Bennet sisters in present-day Cincinnati, where the siblings are gathered at the family home to help their father recuperate from a heart attack. Sittenfeld’s real success in this book are the tight, sly characterizations that are her signature. The sisters’ micro loyalties, petty grievances, and ever-shifting family alliances are at the heart of the book and provide a wealth of comic moments. But Pride and Prejudice is where Jane Austen’s most famous romance lives, the tangled, tortured tale of Mr. Darcy and Liz Bennet. (If for some reason you manage to forget that the Darcy/Liz romance exists, don’t worry. The universe will pick up your slack and remind you because every 3 months or so another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice hits a big and/or small screen.) Eligible does a wonderful job of bringing this iconic couple forward, and Sittenfeld’s clever twist on their courtship feels fresh and fun.
Mr. Darcy would fit right in the Harlequin universe. (The Harleverse?). He’s moody and mostly cranky and wealthy and unmarried and he’s always glowering at Liz Bennet from across a room. Liz is where the mold is gets broken, though. Her path to her proposal isn’t demure, and it isn’t separated from her sexuality, and there’s no way she’s going to behave herself. Dating has changed a great deal in the last 200 years, but Liz Bennet hasn’t. I get you, Darcy. I’d go for her too.
Not sure which adaptation Mr. Darcy is for you? It’s ok. Buzzfeed will help you figure it out. And THAT is how the internet is magic.
Add Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Prep and American Wife, to your stack. They have pretty covers too.