Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


This version of the Bennet family and Mr. Darcy is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . . And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

This is the most fun I’ve had with a book all year! (Okay, it’s only January 20th, but that sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)

Eligible is a Jane Austen retelling, part of The Austen Project, in which modern-day authors are matched up with Austen novels, retelling Austen’s classic tales in a modern setting. Eligible is the 4th of the Austen Project books to be published, and I’d have to say it’s the most enjoyable so far.

The author opens this Pride and Prejudice reinterpretation with a quote by Mark Twain about Cincinnati being 20 years behind every one else… and thank goodness she does, because this mindset certainly help Eligible make sense. The problem I have with most modern-day interpretations of Austen stories is the unrelenting emphasis on marrying well, which definitely isn’t a notion that fits with a 21st century outlook.

In Eligible, Mrs. Bennet is a Cincinnatian who wants nothing more than for her five daughters to be married off to wealthy, successful men, so she can go brag about it at the country club. Mrs. Bennet is just as insufferable here as she is in Austen’s original. Liz and Jane have found lives and careers in New York, but when they return home due to their father’s health crisis, they’re sucked right back into the Bennets’ world, full of gossip and obnoxious younger sisters and oblivious parents.

The story is quite fun. Darcy is a snobbish neurosurgeon who forms terrible impressions of Cincinnati and the Bennets. And he does have good reason, as Kitty and Lydia are crass and embarrassing every time they open their mouths. Jane is lovely, of course, and Chip is smitten… but complicating matters is the fact that Jane had decided to pursue single motherhood right before returning to Cincinnati, and a pregnancy could definitely throw a wrench in the romance.

The modern-day touches are sprinkled throughout the story. The use of a reality TV show as a catalyst is quite brilliant, especially as Chip’s ongoing connection to the show comes back into play later in the book. Lydia’s story take an unexpected turn as well, and fortunately, she ends up being more sensible and much happier in Eligible than she does in the original.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

I don’t want to get too far into the details, because the fun is in encountering all the little ways in which the author takes the original P&P story elements and turns them on their head and makes them fit in a contemporary novel. Still, I’ll mention just a few things that I thought were great twist, such as Jasper Wick (Eligible‘s version of Wickham), a married man with whom Liz has an affair for far too long (prior to the events of the story), and who ends up being just the sort of ass we’d expect. Fortunately, Lydia does NOT get involved with Wick/Wickham in this story… but the way the author makes Lydia’s elopement work out is fitting, and I only just now got the play on names that the author pulls off with Lydia’s love interest.

The one thing I had a really hard time with in Eligible is that about mid-way through, as Liz and Darcy keep running into each other, being rude to one another, and clearly expressing their dislike… Liz asks Darcy if he wants to have hate sex, and he agrees, and they end up in bed together! A lot! Okay, fine, I don’t have any problem with consenting adults doing whatever they like, but somehow it’s shocking to think about Lizzie Bennet and Darcy getting physical! I felt like I was going to have an attack of the vapors. Quick, fetch the smelling salts! It actually all works in the context of the plot, but somehow putting those characters in that situation was quite outrageous for my poor, proper sensibilities.

Okay, end of spoilers.

The writing in Eligible is fun and light-hearted, and the short chapters keep the plot moving right along, even though the book itself, by pure page-count, is on the long side. Despite knowing overall how the story must work out, given the premise, getting there was really a blast.

I haven’t entirely loved the Austen Project books that I’ve read so far, because I do find the notion of Austen’s plots really hard to force into modern retellings. In the case of Eligible, though, it’s a great fit, and so well done. If you’re an Austen fan, Eligible is worth checking out, and I suppose even someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) would enjoy the story as well.

For more on Austen Project books, check out my reviews of:
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Sense and Sensibility by Joanne Trollope
Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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The details:

Title: Eligible
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 19, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

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Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Prepare to meet a young woman who thinks she knows everything

Fresh from university, Emma Woodhouse arrives home in Norfolk ready to embark on adult life with a splash. Not only has her sister, Isabella, been whisked away on a motorbike to London, but her astute governess, Miss Taylor is at a loose end watching as Mr. Woodhouse worries about his girls. Someone is needed to rule the roost and young Emma is more than happy to oblige.

At the helm of her own dinner parties, and often found either rearranging the furniture at the family home of Hartfield, or instructing her new protégée, Harriet Smith, Emma is in charge. You don’t have to be in London to go to parties, find amusement or make trouble.

Not if you’re Emma, the very big fish in the rather small pond.

But for someone who knows everything, Emma doesn’t know her own heart. And there is only one person who can play with Emma’s indestructible confidence, her friend and inscrutable neighbour George Knightly – this time has Emma finally met her match?

Ever alive to the social comedy of village life, beloved author Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is the busybody we all know and love, and a true modern delight.

 

My Thoughts:

Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is the latest volume related to The Austen Project, which pairs up popular contemporary authors with the classic works of Jane Austen.

Austen’s Emma is one of my favorites. I mean, I truly LOL’d over Emma as I listened to the audiobook earlier this year (which can be rather embarrassing when out in public wearing earphones.)

In this retelling, Emma is a college graduate who is thinking about starting her own interior decorating business, but in reality doesn’t have to do much, as her dear dad, Mr. Woodhouse, is more than happy to support Emma indefinitely — in between worrying about health, weather, and every possible hazard that could come their way. The various village residents are here, mostly true to the original, including the chatty Miss Bates and the snobbish but boring Mr. Elton.

Mr. Woodhouse gets many of the best lines, with his obsessive health worries:

“It will be good for them to get out of London and get some country air. All those people in London breathing the air in and out; just think of it, Emma. Just think of all that breathing going on in London — it’s a wonder there’s any air left for the rest of us.”

Emma gets many wry and silly moments too, such as:

“Look at the moon,” she said. “So bright. So lunar!” She had to say something.

And another gem:

Emma thought that this conversation would be a difficult  one to conduct with anybody other than Harriet, with anybody … less beautiful. Somehow, beauty made a difference; a trite remark uttered by a beautiful person is not quite as trite as the same thing said by one less blessed.

Overall, the book is enjoyable, although the storyline perhaps just doesn’t work all that well in a modern setting. It feels at times as though the author is bending over backwards to figure out how to incorporate the socials calls, dinner parties, and picnics that are so crucial in Jane Austen’s world. This new Emma is certainly less detailed, so I felt that I didn’t get to know the characters particularly well, and even Emma herself doesn’t really hold the center stage position she should. Mr. Knightly is more or less a background character for much of the story, and he just doesn’t seem like a viable romantic interest for Emma, except that that’s the way it has to be in order to retain Austen’s plotlines.

Austen fans will probably enjoy this new telling of Emma, but it’s certainly no replacement for reading the original! But if you’re looking for a light read that takes a familiar story and gives it a new spin, this is a fun diversion, and the language is witty enough to give you a few laughs along the way.

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The details:

Title: Emma
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication date: April 7, 2015
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/classics retelling
Source: Purchased

 

Book Review: Sense & Sensibility by Joanne Trollope

Sense & Sensibility_TAPAnother Austen Project book… read!

As I discussed in my review of Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, The Austen Project is a publishing concept that pairs up bestselling contemporary authors with the works of Jane Austen, with the goal of creating six reimagined versions of the classic novels. So far, three have been published, with the next projected for release in 2016.

This new version of Sense and Sensibility is written by bestselling author Joanna Trollope, who imagines the Dashwood family in almost familiar terms — finding themselves displaced from their lovely home by their half-brother and his money-hungry wife, having to rely on the kindness of distant relatives to start fresh, and figuring out the ups and downs of love, infatuation, and everything in between.

But this Sense & Sensibility is set in the 21st century, and of course, there are changes from the original. Elinor, practical as ever, is an architecture student. Marianne, frail and subject to the whims of passionate feeling, is severely asthmatic and must always be looked after. The often overlooked youngest, Margaret (or here, Mags), petulant and whiny, always plugged into her headphones, appreciates any cute boyfriend of her sisters’ —  so long as he drives an awesome car.

The cast of characters is much the same as in the Austen version, with Marianne’s love interest Willoughby portrayed here as gorgeous but shiftless Wills, all too ready to throw Marianne over for the sake of romancing a millionaire’s daughter. We also have Bill Brandon, an utterly good guy running a non-profit home for mentally challenged individuals at his Delaford estate, and hapless Edward Ferrars, whose controlling mother has bullied him into utter dependence. The awful characters — especially Fanny Dashwood and the Steele sisters — are every bit as awful here. After all, selfishness, emotional manipulation, and obsessions with money are timeless!

The essential storyline follows the familiar path, but with elements changed to make more sense in the modern setting. There are hospital visits and interior decorators, school carpools and even a job for Elinor. But the sisters’ defining characteristics are what we know from Austen: Elinor is steady and logical, steering the family through hard times through her practical management when everyone else in her family is busy feeling all the feels — and Marianne, throwing herself headlong into love with no regard for anything but listening to her heart and relying 100% on her emotions to lead the way.

Start to finish, I was pretty charmed by this version of Sense & Sensibility. It’s no replacement for the classic Austen novel, and I’m not convinced that it would  work as a stand-alone. But as a companion piece to the classic, it’s quite endearing. While the rush to marriage may feel a bit forced at times in a modern setting, as framed in the context of status-hungry social climbers and defiantly old school, old money families, it makes a sad sort of sense. Throw in social media, and you have Marianne devastated not just by a broken heart, but by public humiliation via YouTube.

The writing is light in tone, with just enough winking acknowledgement that this is a retelling:

“Hasn’t she got a boyfriend yet? She’s old enough.”

“She’s fourteen. Honestly, Abi, it’s all you ever think about. You’re like those nineteenth-century novels where marriage is the only career option for a middle class girl.”

Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility is a fun read that’s sure to amuse anyone who loves the Jane Austen classic and is open to seeing the story retold with a modernized twist. It doesn’t require a whole lot of concentration, but it should at least make you smile!

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The details:

Title: Sense & Sensibility
Author: Joanne Trollope
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: January 1, 2013
Length: 362 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased

Thursday Quotables: Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Sense & Sensibility_TAP

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope
(published October 29, 2013)

This is not your mother’s Jane Austen:

Marianne was crying again. She was the only person Elinor had ever encountered who could cry and still look ravishing. Her nose never seemed to swell or redden, and she appeared able just to let huge tears slide slowly down her face in a way that one ex-boyfriend had said wistfully simply made him want to lick them off her jawline.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey 3This is my first Austen Project book, and I definitely want more!

For those not familiar with it, The Austen Project is a publishing concept that pairs up bestselling contemporary authors with the works of Jane Austen, with the goal of creating six reimagined versions of the classic novels.

Sense and Sensibility, written by Joanna Trollope, was published in 2013; Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid followed in 2014, and in June 2015, Emma by Alexander McCall Smith was released. Supposedly next will be a Pride and Prejudice reimagining by Curtis Sittenfeld, although it looks as though she may be departing from the formula a bit and publishing a novel with a different name (Eligible, to be released 2016).

I decided to start with Northanger Abbey because it’s fresh in my mind. I’d read the Austen version years ago, and listened to the audiobook while on vacation this summer. (As a result, I associate Northanger Abbey with a hike in the woods in the Canadian Rockies, which is really not a bad association at all!) Last week, I watched the 2007 Masterpiece version of Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones (which is very good – check it out!).

Northanger Abbey is written by Val McDermid, a Scottish-born author best known for writing crime novels. I’d heard her name before, but had never read any of her works, since crime novels aren’t usually my thing. The book gets off to a promising start:

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely resemble her books.

In this new version of NA, heroine Catherine Morland is now Cat Morland, a 17-year-old with a somewhat sheltered upbringing who’s invited to accompany the family’s wealthy friends, the Allens, not to Bath as in the original, but to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Cat’s a typical teen, living life out loud on Facebook and Twitter, and absolutely devoted to YA fiction, especially Twilight and anything supernatural, scary, and dramatic. Like, for instance, the (made-up) Hebridean Harpies series, which includes hot titles such as Kelpies of Kerrera, Shapeshifters of Shuna, and Banshees of Berneray.

Northanger Abbey 2In Edinburgh, Cat soon is befriended by Bella Thorpe, and develops a mad crush on Henry Tilney, her dancing partner at a Highland Ball. In the original, there’s talk of a country walk and an outing in the carriage; here, the young folks go for a hike or for a drive in John Thorpe’s convertible. Eventually, Cat is invited to spend time at the Tilney’s estate of Northanger Abbey, and Cat is completely enamored with the gothic romance of a creaky old mansion and its secrets (although she’s dismayed to discover that the family’s interior decorating mostly runs toward Swedish modernity).

As with the original, Cat’s fiction-influenced flights of fancy lead her to give free rein to her imagination. She gets shivery pleasure from her suspicions that the family is hiding deep, dark secrets… although it’s perhaps a bit surprising that here she imagines not just murder or family members being held captive in secret cells, but that there are vampires afoot!

I was surprised by just how well Northanger Abbey translates into the modern day, with this new edition reading like a particularly larky YA novel. The core elements — female friendship, people using each other for the sake of money and supposed connections, emotional manipulation, and parental interference — all work in a more modern setting. Likewise, the true friendship and romance that Cat finds with the Tilneys make sense here as well, and Val McDermid finds a way to portray the characters in a way that’s true to their origins while coming across as belonging in the contemporary setting. Even the isolation Cat feels at Northanger makes sense — there’s no wifi or cell signal! And if that’s not cause for fear and anxiety, especially for a 17-year-old girl, I don’t know what is.

Yes, Cat’s belief in vampires is quite silly, but in context, given Cat’s youth and her naivete, as well as her passion for supernatural romances, I was willing to accept it as a plot point.

I liked the writing style, although occasionally the texting and teen slang seemed a bit over the top. Then again, who am I to judge how British teens talk these days? The teen dialogue gives the book a fun, upbeat tone for the most part, although I thought I might throw something if Bella used the word “totes” one more time. (“But I bet you’re so busy having a totes lush time…”)

[Minor spoiler ahead!]

The only thing that seemed like too big a departure for me comes toward the end of the book. In the original, General Tilney abruptly kicks Catherine out of Northanger when he discovers that she’s not an heiress after all. I’d anticipated something similar here, as he constantly asks Cat about her connection to the Allens — so why wouldn’t finding out that her family isn’t wealthy and that she doesn’t have money connections have the same impact in this version? But no — what sets the General off in the new NA is gossip provided by John Thorpe, who whispers to the General that Cat is a lesbian, and rather than being a potential match for Henry, she’s actually interested in Eleanor. Okay, fine, the General is an uptight and old-fashioned dude, but throwing this into the mix seems a bit out of place/out of the blue. Given the narrative up to this point as well as the source material, having it still be all about the money would have been a better fit, in my humble opinion.

[End of spoilers]

Overall, I thought this reimagining of Northanger Abbey was quite fun. Would this work on its own for readers who haven’t read or aren’t familiar with the original? That I’m not sure of. It’s cute and quirky, but some of the plot developments might strike a reader as quite odd without knowing the framework provided by Jane Austen.

But for anyone who knows the original Northanger Abbey, this new tale is a fun, fluffy, diversion. I certainly had a good time with it, and I think it’s worth checking out!

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The details:

Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Val McDermid
Publisher: HarperFiction
Publication date: March 27, 2014
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Fiction (adult/young adult)
Source: Purchased

Thursday Quotables: Northanger Abbey (by Val McDermid)

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

Northanger Abbey 3

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
(published March 27, 2014)

This modern retelling of Jane Austen’s first novel is pretty adorable, reimagining Catherine Morland as 17-year-old Cat, a teen girl with an overactive imagination thanks to her obsessive reading of Twilight and other vampire- and beasty-themed YA novels. Upon first view of Northanger:

“OMG,” Cat breathed. The abbey was vampire heaven.

Is it any wonder that she overreacts?

Before she could open the book, there was a clap of thunder so loud and close that Cat cried out in terror. The room was abruptly plunged into darkness and a second deafening thunderclap vibrated through the air. Cat curled into a ball and moaned softly. What terrible powers had her discovery unleashed?

The story is all quite cute, even in the quieter interludes, such as this one hanging out in the younger Tilneys’ rec room:

Cat pushed the door open and Henry looked up from a somewhat battered old guitar. He gave her a welcoming smile. “You found us. Ellie was afraid she hadn’t give you clear enough directions. Come in and join us. We like to think of this as the Slytherin common room.”

“Hardly,” Ellie said, rising from the comfy chintz sofa where she was sprawled. “When you’re around, it’s more like Hufflepuff. Typical lawyer, all hot air and bluster.”

This book is light and fluffy, and perfectly suits my short attention span right now.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

My Year of Austen

janeaustenQuite unintentionally, 2015 has turned into the year of Jane Austen for me… and that’s a very, very good thing!

How did it happen? Two major causes, really:

1) I happened to stumble across a promo for Alexander McCall Smith’s retelling of Emma several months ago, soon after reading (finally!) The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I’d been planning on checking out more of AMS’s books, and thought this sounded like great fun.

2) I’ve gotten hooked on audiobooks in the last year or so. I listen to them during my daily commute, and I’ve become really addicted to doing my weekend walks with a bookish soundtrack.

So, I thought I’d like to read the new Emma, but realized that I should probably re-read the original first, since it’s been many a year since I first read it. Audiobook to the rescue! I listened to Emma as narrated by Juliet Stevenson, and thought it was simply brilliant! Juliet Stevenson is a remarkable audiobook reader, giving such personality to all the characters. And the story itself! It just cracked me up. I hadn’t remembered Emma as being quite so funny, but trust me on this one — given the times I started laughing in public while plugged into my IPod listening to this book (and the number of bizarre looks I got), it’s definitely got some hilarious moments.

Moving on, I decided that I needed to know more about The Austen Project, which was conceived several years ago as a major publishing to-do. The concept? Invite contemporary fiction writers to re-write Jane Austen’s classic novels, setting them in modern times and giving them a new spin while remaining faithful to the original. I suppose the point is to show the timelessness of Austen’s works.

To date, there have been three books published as part of The Austen Project:

  • Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope
  • Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
  • Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

Sense & Sensibility_TAPNorthanger Abbey 2Adobe Photoshop PDF

Supposedly, the next book to be issued as part of the project is Pride and Prejudice, written by Curtis Sittenfeld, although I haven’t found a firm release date yet. Apparently, Persuasion and Mansfield Park have yet to be assigned.

(And also, apparently, The Austen Project has not been all that enthusiastically received, so perhaps the remaining books are being “shelved”, so to speak? I haven’t found anything to indicate future plans, one way or another.)

For me and my year of Austen, I haven’t quite made it to any of the re-tellings yet, although I now have the three books ready and waiting — and once I read them, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts. Meanwhile, having the modern versions on hand has definitely piqued my interest in re-reads. Hence, the audiobooks.

So far, I’ve listened to Emma and Northanger Abbey, and am now in the early chapters of Sense and Sensibility. The audiobooks are awesome, yo. I’m so completely enraptured by Juliet Stevenson’s ability to give voice to each character in a way that’s fresh and easy to identify, plus the way she infuses the lines with such snark and humor is just amazing.

Once I finish with the Austen Project books, I do believe I’ll keep going with my Austen mania. I’ve been wanting to revisit Persuasion for quite some time now. And to be honest, while I’m almost completely sure that I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some niggling doubt is telling me that maybe I only think I’ve read Mansfield Park. I do have a battered old paperback on my shelf, and it certainly looks read. But then again, I know that I’ve seen the movie… no, no, I’m really 99% sure that I’ve read the book… I think.

In any case, I’ll be continuing on with Austen audiobooks all year. And meanwhile, I haven’t even scratched the surface of my Austen movie collection! First up, I think, will be Emma and then Clueless for contrast. (And – PS – it’s the 20th anniversary of the release of Clueless! Feeling old yet?)

Then onward… so many options!

And after all, there’s really never a bad time to re-watch Bride and Prejudice.