Lately I have been immersed in the world of the Bennetts,  Jane Austin's family of early nineteenth century Derbyshire and the modern 21st century suburban Cincinnati Bennetts created by Curtis Sittenfeld.  Of course these are two very different Bennett families, albeit sharing similar characters and romantic situations. Jane Austen is as fresh and witty today as she was two hundred years ago, with her sharp observations of class, social snobbery, and ingrained attitudes that still ring true today. 
The five Bennett girls live with their detached but supportive father and flighty mother whose main focus in life is finding suitable matches for her daughters: kind and beautiful Jane, witty and spirited Elizabeth, dull studious Mary, and the two younger girls Kitty and Lydia who are described as "vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled."  Our protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett,  emerges as an early romantic feminist, seeking love and security but not at the cost of relinquishing her independence and submitting herself to a life of subservience. It is not a dull safe marriage with "ten thousand a year" that she seeks but a match with a man of intelligence and humor who is not only in love with her but who respects and appreciates her as an individual - what a daring young woman she was for her time! Austin remarked about her character, " I must confess that I think of her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print."  
Fast-forward to 2011 and we find the Bennett family living in a comfortable upscale suburb of Cincinnati: Lydia and Kitty now are CrossFit fanatics, doing little else but exercise and party, while middle sister Mary pursues one online degree after another, mainly secluded in her bedroom or the library. Gentle Jane is a yoga instructor in New York City and living nearby is her ambitious sister Elizabeth who is a magazine writer. In her late thirties now, Jane has given up on finding the love of her life and has secretly begun in vitro fertilization treatments. Elizabeth too has struck out in the pursuit of a suitable mate although she still holds out hope for reuniting with a former love who is now supposedly her best friend. Both women fly home after their father's emergency heart surgery, discovering the old Tudor residence in a crumbling state and the family finances in not much better condition. Elizabeth springs into action, attempting to cut costs and to shame and/or coerce her younger sisters into doing their part - e.g. finding employment as well as their own apartments. Meanwhile Mrs. Bennett has heard that there is a new young (single!) doctor in town and manages to secure invitations for the whole family for a backyard BBQ where Bingley (now known as "Chip") will be in attendance. Of course he brings his friend and snooty colleague, Dr. Darcy, with him and thus begins the romance as well as repulsion central to Austen's original tale. Sittenfeld adds a tasty element to her story by revealing that Chip has just been a contestant on the wildly popular TV series called Eligible which all the Bennett women secretly watch.
In an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, Sittenfeld admits that there is no way to improve on Austin's Pride and Prejudice, calling her own work an "act of admiration," - to me it's fan fiction at its best. Eligible was written at the request of the British division of HarperCollins as part of "The Austin Project," modern retellings of six stories from the the most important novelist of the Regency period. Sittenfeld reveals that she agreed to take on this project with the idea that she might be able to show that there are different ways besides traditional marriage to make a life for yourself in the 21st century. Although marriage pressures still exist, women now are more capable of resisting if they choose.  However, she does more than give a modern twist to this classic tale - Sittenfeld has produced a witty, clever, and hilarious take on courtship and marriage in the twenty-first century. Five stars for both books!  

Short Takes

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob. Immigration has shaped our country into a textured and multi-layered fabric, providing stories that are endlessly fascinating due in part to the resiliency of the people who come here. Mira Jacob has drawn on the experience of her own family's journey from India to New Mexico where they link arms with other South Asian émigrés and draw on the support of those relationships to adapt to this new arid land while preserving their own Indian culture. Seen through the eyes of daughter Mira, a  Seattle photographer who has returned home to face the unraveling of her physician father, who still bears the burden of a tragedy in his ancestral home as well as the aching loss of his only son, this family's story is a universal one, a family grieving for the past and uncertain of the future with only the bonds of love to provide hope and strength. Jacob spent 10 years on this first novel, rewriting it after the death of her own father. Truly a poignant testament of love, beautifully written and highly recommended.

  The Vacationers by Emma Staub.
On a lighter note, Staub takes us on a Mallorcan holiday with the Posts, a Manhattan family that is fracturing at the seams but is determined to have a perfect vacation anyway.  At least that is the goal of Franny, a food writer who has just discovered her husband, Jim's infidelity, too late to cancel this meticulously planned  getaway. The anger of betrayal is simmering beneath the surface but not openly shared with anyone but her best friend Charles who has joined the party along with his partner Lawrence - they are  secretly trying to adopt a child but that is another side story. Add socially awkward daughter Sylvia, who just graduated from a stuffy private school and is now yearning to burst out of her shell, hopefully into the lustful arms of a handsome Spaniard. Brother Bobby, a boy/man nearing 30 who is trying to hide his unsuccessful career from his parents, has brought his older girlfriend Carmen with him, a fitness instructor extraordinaire whom his parents particularly dislike.  Hooray for Carmen! She is the most genuine and perceptive character and we have to cheer for her moment of clarity with regards to her life with Bobby and his family. But as I said, this book is light and witty, deliciously written (those tapas sound amazing) and so, so addictive. A literary beach read, take it with you to Mallorca. . . 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Very few books can change your life perspective, how you look at your relationships, your accomplishments and what is important, in a lasting way. This book is perhaps one of those special few. Paul Kalanithi was in his last year of residency in neurosurgery when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Just 35 years old and newly married, Paul was a gifted neurosurgeon and scientist who had originally studied English literature at Stanford before discovering that the fields of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology were his passions. In the last year of his life he decided that he had to record what it is felt like to be a patient, to face your own  mortality, and to delve deep inside yourself to examine what life is all about. Paul's life ended before he finished this book but this thoughtful and beautifully written account is more than enough to reveal what kind of man he was and why his life as a physician, a husband, and a father was so extraordinary.

Enjoy your summer of reading. . .


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