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Eligible By Curtis Sittenfeld

A new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld is exciting by any standards, but Curtis Sittenfeld channelling Jane Austen - and not just any Austen, but *the* Austen, Pride & Prejudice? Be still our heaving bosoms. TBH once I got over my excitement I was just a little bit nervous. After all, you know, Austen is, well, Austen (and I say that as someone who is firmly #TeamBronte). I needn't have worried. Whilst Eligible is no match for Sittenfeld's debut, Prep, it is a whipsmart retelling of the Austen classic that pulls no punches in bringing its themes bang up to date. Darcy and Lizzy have hate sex, Jane has IVF and Lydia... well, I won't tell you what Lydia gets up to. And Mr and Mrs Bennett are a "joy" from the very first page. But most interesting of all is the fact that Austen's themes feel just as relevant as the day P&P was first written. This is by far the best of the patchy Austen Project and a compulsive read in its own right. I started it on Saturday morning and didn't look up til I'd finished. SB

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ELIGIBLE

Curtis Sittenfeld

£14.99, The Borough Press

BUY NOW

A new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld is exciting by any standards, but Curtis Sittenfeld channelling Jane Austen - and not just any Austen, but *the* Austen, Pride & Prejudice? Be still our heaving bosoms. TBH once I got over my excitement I was just a little bit nervous. After all, you know, Austen is, well, Austen (and I say that as someone who is firmly #TeamBronte). I needn't have worried. Whilst Eligible is no match for Sittenfeld's debut, Prep, it is a whipsmart retelling of the Austen classic that pulls no punches in bringing its themes bang up to date. Darcy and Lizzy have hate sex, Jane has IVF and Lydia... well, I won't tell you what Lydia gets up to. And Mr and Mrs Bennett are a "joy" from the very first page. But most interesting of all is the fact that Austen's themes feel just as relevant as the day P&P was first written. This is by far the best of the patchy Austen Project and a compulsive read in its own right. I started it on Saturday morning and didn't look up til I'd finished. SB

Chapter:

One

Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife. Two years earlier, Chip— graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, scion of the Pennsylvania Bingleys, who in the twentieth century had made their fortune in plumbing fixtures—had, ostensibly with some reluctance, appeared on the juggernaut reality-television show Eligible. Over the course of eight weeks in the fall of 2011, twenty-five single women had lived together in a mansion in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and vied for Chip’s heart: accompanying him on dates to play blackjack in Las Vegas and taste wine at vineyards in Napa Valley, fighting with and besmirching one another in and out of his presence. At the end of each episode, every woman received either a kiss on the lips from him, which meant she would continue to compete, or a kiss on the cheek, which meant she had to return home immediately. In the final episode, with only two women remaining—Kara, a wide-eyed, blond-ringleted twenty-three-year-old former college cheerleader turned second-grade teacher from Jackson, Mississippi, and Marcy, a duplicitous yet alluring brunette twenty-eight-year-old dental hygienist from Morristown, New Jersey—Chip wept profusely and declined to propose marriage to either. They both were extraordinary, he declared, stunning and intelligent and sophisticated, but toward neither did he feel what he termed “a soul connection.” In compliance with FCC regulations, Marcy’s subsequent tirade consisted primarily of bleeped-out words that nevertheless did little to conceal her rage. 

“It’s not because he was on that silly show that I want him to meet our girls,” Mrs. Bennet told her husband over breakfast on a morning in late June. The Bennets lived on Grandin Road, in a sprawling eight-bedroom Tudor in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “I never even saw it. But he went to Harvard Medical School, you know.” 

“So you’ve mentioned,” said Mr. Bennet. 

“After all we’ve been through, I wouldn’t mind a doctor in the family,” Mrs. Bennet said. “Call that self-serving if you like, but I’d say it’s smart.” 

“Self-serving?” Mr. Bennet repeated. “You?” 

Five weeks prior, Mr. Bennet had undergone emergency coronary artery bypass surgery; after a not inconsiderable recuperation, it was just in the last few days that his typically sardonic affect had returned. 

“Chip Bingley didn’t even want to be on Eligible, but his sister nominated him,” Mrs. Bennet said. 

“A reality show isn’t unlike the Nobel Peace Prize, then,” Mr. Bennet said. “In that they both require nominations.” 

“I wonder if Chip’s renting or has bought a place,” Mrs. Bennet said. “That would tell us something about how long he plans to stay in Cincinnati.” 

Mr. Bennet set down his slice of toast. “Given that this man is a stranger to us, you seem inordinately interested in the details of his life.” 

“I’d scarcely say stranger. He’s in the ER at Christ Hospital, which means Dick Lucas must know him. Chip’s very well-spoken, not like those trashy young people who are usually on TV. And very handsome, too.” 

“I thought you’d never seen the show.” 

“I only caught a few minutes of it, when the girls were watching.” Mrs. Bennet looked peevishly at her husband. “You shouldn’t quarrel with me. It’s bad for your recovery. Anyway, Chip could have had a whole career on TV but chose to return to medicine. And you can tell that he’s from a nice family. Fred, I really believe his moving here right when Jane and Liz are home is the silver lining to our troubles.” The eldest and second eldest of the five Bennet sisters had lived in New York for the last decade and a half; it was due to their father’s health scare that they had abruptly, if temporarily, returned to Cincinnati. 

“My dear,” said Mr. Bennet, “if a sock puppet with a trust fund and a Harvard medical degree moved here, you’d think he was meant to marry one of our girls.” 

“Tease me all you like, but the clock is ticking. No, Jane doesn’t look like she’ll be forty in November, but any man who knows her age will think long and hard about what that means. And Liz isn’t far behind her.” 

“Plenty of men don’t want children.” Mr. Bennet took a sip of coffee. “I’m still not sure that I do.” 

“A woman in her forties can give birth,” Mrs. Bennet said, “but it isn’t as easy as the media would have you believe. Phyllis and Bob’s daughter had all sorts of procedures, and what did she end up with but little Ying from Shanghai.” As she stood, Mrs. Bennet glanced at her gold oval-faced watch. “I’m going to phone Helen Lucas and see if she can arrange an introduction to Chip.” 

***

Mrs. Bennet was always the one to say grace at family dinners— she was fond of the Anglican meal prayer—and hardly had the word amen passed her lips that evening when, with uncontainable enthusiasm, she announced, “The Lucases have invited us for a Fourth of July barbecue!” 

“What time?” asked Lydia, who at twenty-three was the youngest Bennet. “Because Kitty and I have plans.” 

Mary, who was thirty, said, “No fireworks start before dark.” 

“We’re invited to a pre-party in Mount Adams,” Kitty said. Kitty was twenty-six, the closest in both age and temperament to Lydia, yet contrary to typical sibling patterns, she both tagged after and was led astray by her younger sister. 

“But I haven’t told you yet who’ll be at the barbecue.” From her end of the long oak kitchen table, Mrs. Bennet beamed. “Chip Bingley!” 

“The Eligible crybaby?” Lydia said, and Kitty giggled as Lydia added, “I’ve never seen a woman cry as hard as he did in the season finale.” 

“What’s an eligible crybaby?” Jane asked. 

“Oh, Jane,” Liz said. “So innocent and unspoiled. You’ve heard of the reality show Eligible, right?” 

Jane squinted. “I think so.”

“He was on it a couple years ago. He was the guy being lusted after by twenty-five women.” 

“I don’t suppose that any of you can appreciate the terror a man might feel being so outnumbered,” Mr. Bennet said. “I often weep, and there are only six of you.” 

Eligible is degrading to women,” Mary said, and Lydia said, “Of course that’s what you think.” 

“But every other season is one woman and twenty-five guys,” Kitty said. “That’s equality.” 

“The women humiliate themselves in a way the men don’t,” Mary said. “They’re so desperate.” 

“Chip Bingley went to Harvard Medical School,” Mrs. Bennet said. “He’s not one of those vulgar Hollywood types.” 

“Mom, his Hollywood vulgarity is the only reason anyone in Cincinnati cares about him,” Liz said. 

Jane turned to her sister. “You knew he was here?”

“You didn’t?”

“Which of us are you hoping he’ll go for, Mom?” Lydia asked. “He’s old, right? So I assume Jane.”

“Thanks, Lydia,” Jane said.

“He’s thirty-six,” Mrs. Bennet said. “That would make him suitable for Jane or Liz.”

“Why not for Mary?” Kitty asked.

“He doesn’t seem like Mary’s type,” Mrs. Bennet said. 

“Because she’s gay,” Lydia said. “And he’s not a woman.” 

Mary glared at Lydia. “First of all, I’m not gay. And even if I were, I’d rather be a lesbian than a sociopath.”

Lydia smirked. “You don’t have to choose.”

“Is everyone listening to this?” Mary turned to her mother, at the foot of the table, then her father, at the head. “There’s something seriously wrong with Lydia.” 

“There’s nothing wrong with any of you,” Mrs. Bennet said. “Jane, what’s this vegetable called? It has an unusual flavor.” 

“It’s spinach,” Jane said. “I braised it.” 

“In point of fact,” Mr. Bennet said, “there’s something wrong with all of you. You’re adults, and you ought to be living on your own.” 

“Daddy, we came home to take care of you,” Jane said. 

“I’m well now. Go back to New York. You too, Lizzy. As the only one who refuses to take a dime and, not coincidentally, the only one with a real job, you’re supposed to be setting an example for your sisters. Instead, they’re pulling you down with them.” 

“Jane and Lizzy know how important my luncheon is,” Mrs. Bennet said. “That’s why they’re still here.” The event to which Mrs. Bennet was referring was the annual fundraising luncheon for the Cincinnati Women’s League, scheduled this year for the second Thursday in September. A member of the league since her twenties, Mrs. Bennet was for the first time the luncheon’s planning chair, and, as she often reminded her family members, the enormous pressure and responsibility of the role left her, however lamentably, unavailable to tend to her husband’s recovery. “Now, the Lucases’ barbecue is called for four,” Mrs. Bennet continued. “Lydia and Kitty, that’s plenty of time for you to join us and still get to your party before the reworks. Helen Lucas is inviting some young people from the hospital besides Chip Bingley, so it’d be a shame for you to miss meeting them.” 

“Mom, unlike our sisters, Kitty and I are capable of getting boyfriends on our own,” Lydia said. 

Mrs. Bennet looked from her end of the table to her husband’s. “If any of our girls marry doctors, it will meet my needs, yes,” she said to him. “But, Fred, if it gets them out of the house, I daresay it will meet yours, too.”

Two

In the professional realm, Mr. Bennet had done little while supporting his family with a large but dwindling inheritance, and his observations about his daughters’ indolence was more than a little hypocritical. However, he was not wrong. Indeed, an outsider could be forgiven for wondering what it was that the Bennet sisters did with themselves from day to day and year to year. It wasn’t that they were uneducated: On the contrary, from the ages of three to eighteen, each sister had attended the Seven Hills School, a challenging yet warm coeducational institution where in their younger years they’d memorized songs such as “Fifty Nifty United States” and collaborated— collaboration, at Seven Hills, was paramount—with classmates on massive papier-mâché stegosauruses or triceratops. In later years, they read The Odyssey, helped run the annual Harvest Fair, and went on supplemental summer trips to France and China; throughout, they all played soccer and basketball. The cumulative bill for this progressive and wide-ranging education was $800,000. All five girls had then gone on to private colleges before embarking on what could euphemistically be called non-lucrative careers, though in the case of some sisters, non-lucrative non-careers was a more precise descriptor. Kitty and Lydia had never worked longer than a few months at a time, as desultory nannies or salesgirls in the Abercrombie & Fitch or the Banana Republic in Rookwood Pavilion. Similarly, they had lived under roofs other than their parents’ for only short stretches, experiments in quasi-independence had always resulted in dramatic fights with formerly close friends, broken leases, and the huffy transport of possessions, via laundry basket and trash bag, back to the Tudor. Primarily what occupied the younger Bennet sisters was eating lunch at Green Dog Café or Teller’s, texting and watching videos on their smartphones, and exercising. About a year before, Kitty and Lydia had embraced CrossFit, the intense strength and conditioning regimen that involved weight lifting, kettle bells, battle ropes, obscure acronyms, the eschewal of most foods other than meat, and a derisive attitude toward the weak and unenlightened masses who still believed that jogging was a sufficient workout and a bagel was an acceptable breakfast. Naturally, all Bennets except Kitty and Lydia were among these masses. 

Mary, meanwhile, was pursuing her third online master’s degree, this one in psychology; the earlier ones had been in criminal justice and business administration. The plainest in appearance of the sisters, Mary considered her decision to live with her parents to be evidence of her commitment to the life of the mind over material acquisitions, and also to reflect her aversion to waste, since her childhood room would go empty were she not its occupant. 

Jane and Liz had always held jobs, but even for them, a certain awareness of the safety net below had allowed the prioritizing of their personal interests over remuneration. Jane was a yoga instructor, a position that might have let her cover her rent in a city such as Cincinnati but did not do so in Manhattan, and certainly not on the Upper West Side, which she had called home for the last fifteen years. While Liz, too, had spent her twenties and thirties in New York, she had for most of them, until a recent move to Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, inhabited dingy walk-ups in the outer boroughs. The exception had been the apartment at Seventy-second and Amsterdam that the sisters had shared shortly after Liz graduated from Barnard College in the late 1990s, just a year after Jane’s graduation from the same school. Though they had gotten along well as roommates, the sisters’ cohabitation had reached its conclusion when Jane became engaged to an affable hedge-fund analyst named Teddy; Mrs. Bennet’s uneasiness with Jane and Teddy living together prior to their marriage was allayed by Teddy’s degree from Cornell and his lucrative job. Alas, Teddy’s dawning awareness of his attraction to other men ultimately precluded a permanent union with Jane, though Jane and her erstwhile fiancé did part on good terms, and once or twice a year, both Liz and Jane would meet Teddy and his toothsome partner, Patrick, for brunch. 

Liz had spent her entire professional life working at magazines, having been hired out of college as a fact-checker at a weekly publication known for its incisive coverage of politics and culture. From there, she had jumped to Mascara, a monthly women’s magazine she had subscribed to since the age of fourteen, drawn equally to its feminist stances and its unapologetic embrace of shoes and cosmetics. First she was an assistant editor, then an associate editor, then a features editor; but at the age of thirty-one, realizing that her passion was telling stories rather than editing them, Liz had become Mascara’s writer-at-large, a position she still occupied. Though writing tended to pay less than editing, Liz believed she had a dream job: She traveled regularly and interviewed accomplished and sometimes famous individuals. However, her achievements did not impress her own family. Her father still, after all this time, pretended not to remember Mascara’s name. “How’s everything at Nail Polish?” he’d ask or “Any new developments at Lipstick?” Mary often told Liz that Mascara reinforced oppressive and exclusionary standards of beauty; even Lydia and Kitty, who had no problem with oppressive and exclusionary standards of beauty, were uninterested in the publication, likely because they were fans of neither magazines nor books and confined their reading to the screens of their phones. 

And yet, if Liz’s job underwhelmed those close to her, its flexible nature was what had allowed her to remain at home during her father’s convalescence, and the situation was similar for Jane, who had taken a leave of absence from the yoga studio where she was employed. Five weeks earlier, the two sisters had traveled to Cincinnati unsure of the outcome of, and greatly rattled by, Mr. Bennet’s surgery. By the time it was clear that he would make a full recovery, Liz and Jane were deeply involved in both his recuperation and the day-to-day proceedings of the household: They grocery-shopped and prepared cardiac-friendly meals for the entire family; they took turns transporting Mr. Bennet to his doctors’ appointments, including to the orthopedist treating the arm Mr. Bennet had broken when he’d lost consciousness during his original heart incident and had fallen at the top of the stairs in the second-floor hall. (Because he still wore a cast on his right arm, Mr. Bennet was unable to drive himself.) Additionally, though they had made little progress so far, Liz and Jane intended to address the cluttered and dusty condition into which the Tudor had deteriorated. 

While their sisters could in theory have performed all such tasks, the younger women appeared disinclined. Though also clearly rattled by their father’s heart incident, they weren’t rattled in a way that caused them to alter their daily schedules: Lydia and Kitty carried on with CrossFit and leisurely restaurant lunches, while Mary sequestered herself in her room with her online studies, stayed up late, and slept in, emerging erratically to attempt to engage family members in discussions of mortality. In the kitchen, observing her father drinking the powdered-psyllium-seed-husk-based liquid meant to offset the constipating effects of his pain medication, Mary had announced that she considered the Native American view of life and death as cyclical to be far more advanced than the Western proclivity for heroic measures, at which point Mr. Bennet had poured the remainder of his beverage down the sink, said, “For Christ’s sake, Mary, put a sock in it,” and left the room. 

Mrs. Bennet expressed great concern about her husband’s plight—indeed, she could hardly speak of the evening on which he’d been hospitalized without sobbing at the recollection of the fright it had caused her—but she could not act as his nurse or chauffeur because of her many Women’s League luncheon duties. “What if you ask somebody else on the committee to take over and you’re the chair next year instead?” Liz had inquired one day when Mr. Bennet was still in the hospital. Her mother had looked at her in horror. 

“Why, I’d never hear the end of it,” Mrs. Bennet said. “Lizzy, all those items being solicited for the silent auction—I’m the one keeping track of them.” 

“Then how about creating an online spreadsheet that everyone can see?” Because Mrs. Bennet wasn’t proficient with a computer, Liz added, “I can help you.” 

“It’s out of the question,” Mrs. Bennet said. “I’m also the one who’s been talking to the florist, and I’m the one who had the idea to do napkins with the league’s insignia. You can’t pass off things like that in midstream.” 

“Does Mom secretly hate Dad?” Liz asked Jane the next morning when the two sisters were out for a run. “Because she’s acting really unsupportive.” 

“I think she just doesn’t want to face how serious things could have been,” Jane said. 

After Mr. Bennet’s return home, however, Liz wondered if she’d been wrong not about her mother’s antipathy for her father but only about it being secret. Although her parents resumed their regular lunches together at the Cincinnati Country Club as soon as Mr. Bennet possessed the energy, the couple led largely separate lives within the Tudor. In fact, her father no longer shared the master bedroom, instead sleeping in a narrow sleigh bed in his second-floor study, a setup that predated his hospital stay. When Liz asked Mary how long the arrangement had existed, Mary squinted and said, “Five years? Or, I don’t know, ten?” 

Reinforcing Liz’s dismay was the fact that, although Dr. Morelock had explicitly talked about the importance of Mr. Bennet embarking on a diet low in red meat, salt, and alcohol, Mrs. Bennet had welcomed her husband home with a cocktail hour of Scotch and Cheetos followed by a steak dinner. When the subsequent night’s entrée was roast beef, Liz discreetly asked her mother afterward if she might consider making chicken or salmon. “But Kitty and Lydia like beef because it’s caveman food,” Mrs. Bennet protested. 

“But Dad had a heart attack,” Liz said. 

The next night, and for all the nights since, she and Jane had taken turns preparing dinner. They had also agreed to stay in Cincinnati until the weekend after the Women’s League luncheon. Liz had little confidence that her mother would step in and provide care for her father at that point; rather, with his cast off by then, his physical therapy well under way if not complete, and his ability to drive likely restored, she hoped he’d be able to care for himself. 

Three

“Honk so your mother knows we’re waiting,” Mr. Bennet said. In the large circular driveway of the Tudor, waiting to depart for the Lucases’ barbecue, Liz sat in the driver’s seat of her mother’s Lexus sedan, with Mr. Bennet in the passenger seat and Jane in back. 

“She already knows,” Liz said, and Mr. Bennet leaned over and, using his left arm, which was the one not in a cast, pressed the horn himself. 

“Jesus, Dad,” Liz said. “Show a little patience.” 

The Bennets would transport themselves to the Lucases’ in no fewer than three cars: Lydia and Kitty would drive out in Kitty’s Mini Cooper, and Mary insisted she’d take her own Honda hybrid. “This way, it won’t be a problem if Dad is tired and needs to leave early,” Mrs. Bennet had said as she, Liz, and Jane conferred in the kitchen about the slightly droopy strawberry-and-blueberry-bedecked sponge cake Jane had made. 

In the driveway, Liz turned to her father. “Are you eager to meet the famous Chip Bingley?” 

“Unlike your mother, I don’t care whom any of you marries or, frankly, if you marry,” Mr. Bennet said. “The institution hasn’t done much for me, Lord knows.” 

“That’s a nice sentiment.” Liz patted her father’s knee. “Thank you for sharing.” 

Mrs. Bennet appeared at the back door, looking flustered, and called out, “I just need another minute.” Before they could respond, she vanished again. 

Liz glanced at Jane in the rearview mirror. “Jane, are you excited to meet Chip?” Jane was gazing out the window; so placid was she in demeanor that at times it was difficult to discern whether she was upset or simply reflective. In any case, she had never participated with much gusto in the banter her father and sisters enjoyed. 

“I suppose,” Jane said as Mrs. Bennet emerged from the house. 

“How lovely of you to join us,” Mr. Bennet called out his open window. 

Liz started the engine as her mother climbed into the backseat. “The phone rang, and it was Ginger Drossman inviting us for brunch,” Mrs. Bennet said. “That’s what took so long.” As she leaned forward into the front seat, a look of concern pinched Mrs. Bennet’s features. “Lizzy, I’m sure there’s time for you to run in and put on a skirt.” 

In her teens or early twenties, such a remark would have irritated Liz, but at thirty-eight, having wardrobe fights with her mother felt preposterous. Cheerfully, she said, “Nope, I’m comfortable.” Even if her mother couldn’t recognize it, the shorts she had on were extremely stylish, as were her sleeveless white blouse and straw sandals. 

Jane spoke as they pulled out of the driveway. She said, “I think Lizzy looks pretty.” 

***

While it was technically accurate that both Liz and Jane were single, this fact did not for either woman convey the full story. After Jane’s fruitless early engagement, she had met a man named Jean-Pierre Babineaux, a courtly French financier, and they had become a couple for the better part of a decade. Though Jane had assumed she and Jean-Pierre would marry, their conversations on the subject were always marked by a bittersweetness she recognized in retrospect as a kind of warning. It was not that either of them lacked affection for the other but, rather, that the circumstances of their lives were incompatible: He was fifteen years older than she, divorced, and the father of twins who were, when Jane met him, twelve. He traveled back to Paris frequently, and while Jane could hardly complain about her visits there, staying at the apartment he maintained in the Sixth Arrondissement, she did not wish to live so far from her family and certainly not permanently; yet Jean-Pierre’s ultimate plan was to return to his birthplace. Further, while Jane unequivocally wished to bear children, Jean-Pierre had had a vasectomy when the twins were two. 

Jane and Jean-Pierre’s eventual breakup was no less devastating for being both protracted and decorous. At thirty-seven, she was single once more and remained so for the next two years. Shortly after her thirty-ninth birthday, following the painstaking consideration of a multitude of anonymous candidates, Jane lay on her back in a hospital gown at a clinic on East Fifty-seventh Street, awaiting the insertion of donor semen into her cervix via needleless syringe. Though Jane followed all the recommendations for creating conditions favorable to pregnancy—she stopped drinking alcohol, slept eight hours a night, and meditated daily—fertilization didn’t occur during that cycle or in any of the next several rounds. While not statistically anomalous—few women attempting to become pregnant via donor insemination were immediately successful—this lack of progress was discouraging as well as expensive, and Jane’s insurance covered none of the monthly $1,000-dollar charge. Anticipating her parents’ disapproval, she hadn’t disclosed her pursuit to them and thus was receiving no extra money beyond the rent, which Mr. Bennet paid directly on her behalf. Thus, for the first time in her adult life, Jane found herself bypassing restaurants, forgoing haircuts, and avoiding the street on which her favorite clothing boutique, with its elegantly tailored $400-dollar pencil skirts and luxurious $300-dollar sweaters, was located. Such sacrifices would not, she recognized, count by most people’s standards as hardships, but she was privately conscious of a new austerity. 

With no one other than Liz did Jane discuss her efforts to become a mother. Her gynecologist had suggested that she tell her parents even before the first insemination, but Jane thought that if she wasn’t able to become pregnant, then she’d have courted the double punishment of what she assumed would be her mother’s histrionics and no baby. And Jane still hoped to marry eventually, though marriage was no longer her immediate goal. 

Unlike Jane, Liz wished to avoid motherhood. That she was dating a married man made such avoidance logical, though whether these circumstances had occurred by chance or sub-conscious design even Liz herself couldn’t say. In the late nineties, Liz and Jasper Wick had immediately hit it off as new hires in the fact-checking department of the same prestigious magazine: They bit back smiles when the books editor, who was from Delaware, pronounced the word “memoir” mem-wah; they got lunch together several times a week at a cheap Thai restaurant; and they routinely divided the work between them when checking facts on onerous articles. (They had started their jobs using computers with spotty Internet connections, back when fact-checking meant visiting the public library or waiting anxiously for the return of phone calls.) 

When Liz and Jasper met, he had a girlfriend, which was unsurprising: He had deep brown eyes and tousled blond curls and was at once smart and irreverent, boyish and thoughtful, with, in Liz’s assessment, the perfect quantities of neuroses and prurience to make him interesting to talk to, receptive to gossip, and game for analyzing the behavior and personalities of others without tipping over into seeming unmasculine. Indeed, Jasper’s sole flaw, in Liz’s opinion, apart from his girlfriend, was that he wore a gold ring from Stanford University, his alma mater; Liz did not care for either jewelry on men or academic ostentatiousness. But she actually was glad to have identified the one thing about Jasper she’d change, because it was similar to realizing what you’d forgotten to take on a trip, and if it was only perfume, as opposed to your driver’s license, you were relieved. 

Initially, Liz had believed that a union with Jasper was just a matter of time; such was Jasper’s tendency to confide in her about the multitude of challenges he and his girlfriend, Serena, were experiencing that Liz imagined she need not persuade him of anything. While still together with Serena, Jasper had dropped conversational bombshells on Liz that included “I mean, I talk way more openly with you than I do with her” and “Sometimes I think you and I would be a good couple. Do you ever think that?” Liz knew for certain he had said these things because, although she no longer kept a journal, she’d written them down verbatim, along with their date of utterance, on an unlined sheet of computer paper she kept in her nightstand. Also, after she mentioned to Jasper that as a toddler she’d referred to herself as Ninny or Nin, he began calling her by the latter pet name. 

“Really?” Jasper was a few feet in front of her, looking over his shoulder, grinning under a black fleece cap. “What’s my prize?” 

Your prize is me, Liz thought. “Bragging rights,” she said. “And a hot drink from any bar that’s open.” Then she knelt and let herself collapse backward into the snow. 

Jasper retraced his steps and lay down beside her. They were quiet as the flakes uttered and spun in the air above, the sky a dirty white, the snow beneath them a chilly cushion. Jasper stuck out his tongue, catching a flake, and Liz did the same. All the usual noises of Manhattan were muted by the storm, and she felt completely happy. Then Jasper looked over at her. “So I broke up with Serena last night,” he said. 

The joy that flared in Liz’s heart—it was almost too much. She hoped she sounded calm as she said, “I guess that makes sense.” 

“You think so?”

“It just seems like you guys have had a lot of issues.”

“She’s furious, though. She claims I ambushed her.” Though no prettier than Liz, Serena was far more confidently difficult, more expectant of appeasement and conciliation. 

Liz said, “Do you still feel like going to Alex’s thing tonight or you think you’ll skip it?” This was an anti-Valentine’s party a co-worker of theirs was throwing, but if Jasper wanted to forgo it, Liz thought, they could order takeout, watch a movie, and have a mellow night. 

“I’ll probably go.” 

Liz was then assaulted by something wet and lumpy, a substance that broke upon contact with her nose and dispersed into her eyes and nostrils. 

“Ouch!” she cried. “What the hell?” But by the time she asked, she knew. While she didn’t really have the impulse to throw a snowball back, Jasper was smiling with anticipation. When her snowball glanced off the shoulder of his waterproof jacket, he said, “Oh, Nin, I have so much to teach you.” 

How long, on that day, did Liz imagine it would take for them to become romantically involved? Six or eight weeks perhaps—long enough for him to process his breakup with Serena, process being a word Jasper himself, unlike either of her college boyfriends, actually used in reference to his own emotions. But apparently little processing was necessary. Liz felt no compulsion to keep a close eye on Jasper at the party, which made it all the more soul crushing when he left with the host’s sister Natalie, who was a junior at NYU. 

A rebound, Liz told herself. Natural enough, and perhaps even best to get it out of his system. Surely what was obvious to Liz—and to others, too, there’d even been an older female editor at the magazine who’d murmured to her, “You and Jasper Wick would be so cute together”—would soon become visible to Jasper as well. 

Alas, Jasper and Natalie were a couple for two years, and it took only a few weeks of their courtship for Liz to revert to her Serena-era patterns with Jasper: She was his lunch companion, intermittently his jogging partner, his professional sounding board—she would copyedit and proofread the pitches he was crafting in the hope of getting a front-of-the-book piece in the magazine—and she was also his confidante, helping to parse his concerns about Natalie’s immaturity or his irritation at his roommate, who would, while stoned, consume Jasper’s tortillas and peanut butter. Once when Natalie was at her parents’ house in Phoenix, Liz and Jasper drank many beers together on a Wednesday night at a dive bar near Times Square, and, unable to bear it any longer, Liz blurted out, “But what about us? I thought you pictured us as a couple!” 

Jasper seemed startled. “That’s what you want?” he said. 

“Of course it’s what I want!” Liz said.

“Part of me wants it, too.” Jasper’s tone was pained rather than flirtatious. “But we’d be the real thing, and I don’t know if I’m ready for that. You’re such an important friend that I don’t want to risk losing you.” 

When they left the bar, before parting ways in Port Authority, they stood on the corner of Forty-second Street and Seventh Avenue and continued talking; there were between them always an infinite number of subjects to be addressed and dissected, mulled over and mocked and revisited. It was a windy March night, and the wisps of Liz’s brown hair that had slipped from her ponytail blew around her forehead and cheeks. 

Abruptly, Jasper said, “Your hair is all crazy tonight.” He stepped toward her, his hand out. But at the same time, Liz raised her own arm and pushed away her hair, and as she did so, Jasper withdrew his hand and took a step back. There were countless hours—or maybe more than hours, maybe weeks and days—that Liz devoted to replaying this nonaction, this absence of contact. Because her hair hadn’t been that crazy, it was frequently slipping from a rubber band, so obviously he had been about to touch her, about to kiss her even and perhaps to become her boyfriend and the love of her life. Had she intercepted him out of habit, because it was her hair and her head? Because she didn’t believe in kissing the boyfriends of other girls? Or because she was, in some instinctive way, intent on wrecking her own destiny? 

On the night he didn’t touch her, Liz and Jasper both were twenty-four years old. For the next six years, they never kissed; they even slept in the same bed twice, at a friend’s aunt’s house in Sag Harbor and another time on a road trip to visit Jasper’s sister at the University of Virginia. Meanwhile, Jasper cycled through additional girlfriends—after Natalie there was Gretchen, and after Gretchen there was Elise, and after Elise there was Katherine—and Liz halfheartedly went out with other guys but never for longer than a few months. Jasper would ask about such men in great detail, and once, when Liz was first giving online dating a whirl, they arranged that he and Elise would have drinks at the same bar where Liz was meeting her online prospect so that Jasper and Liz could debrief in mid-date; this seemed a terribly amusing idea in advance that was plainly fucked up in its execution. Jasper, of course, hadn’t told Elise and, thus, pretended that seeing Liz was a coincidence, and Liz wasn’t sure if it made matters better or worse that Elise appeared to believe the farce. 

By this point, neither Jasper nor Liz was employed by the magazine where they’d met, but Liz still worked in the same building, and Jasper would return for lunch in the cafeteria, which had been designed by a famous architect and was reminiscent, with its blue-tinted glass partitions, of a series of aquariums. For all these years, Liz’s attraction to Jasper, and Jasper’s apparently lesser but not nonexistent attraction to Liz, was something they’d allude to jokingly—for instance, after visiting the Guggenheim together, she held up the ticket stub and said, with what she hoped was unmistakable sarcasm, “Maybe if I sleep with this under my pillow tonight, you’ll fall in love with me,” and he grinned and said, “Maybe so.” They’d less often but still regularly have emotional, alcohol-fueled confrontations, always initiated by Liz. “It’s ridiculous we’re not together,” she said once. “In most ways, I basically am your girlfriend.” 

“I hate that I’m causing you grief,” Jasper replied. 

“I’m an idiot,” Liz said. “Anyone looking at me would think I’m an idiot.” 

“You’re not an idiot,” Jasper said. “You’re my best friend.”

If only she had let him smooth back her hair!

At intervals, Liz swore off Jasper—she’d say, “Our friendship is unhealthy,” and she’d briefly embrace yoga, which, loyalty to Jane aside, she hated—but Liz and Jasper’s social circles overlapped enough that within a week or a month, they’d run into each other at a party or a Frisbee game and then they’d talk and talk about all the things they’d both been saving up to share with the other. 

When they were thirty-one, Jasper announced his engagement to a pert and friendly associate at a white-shoe law firm, a woman named Susan about whom he seemed to Liz no less equivocal than he had toward earlier girlfriends. After a run together, he asked Liz if she’d be a groomsman; seeing her expression, he added, “Or a groomswoman, whatever.” When Liz began to sob, he said, “What? What?” and she sprinted away and didn’t speak to him for five years; though she still laid eyes on him at media events, she did not attend Jasper’s wedding, let alone participate in the ceremony. 

Four

One Saturday in the spring of 2011, Liz and an oboist she’d met for a blind date ran into Jasper and Susan on the High Line, Jasper pushing a stroller in which a toddler slept. Susan greeted Liz warmly—like Elise, Susan had always seemed improbably unsuspicious of Liz, causing Liz to wonder exactly how Jasper explained their friendship—and the five of them ended up sharing brunch, during which the toddler, a boy named Aidan, awoke and shrieked so relentlessly that Liz forgave Jasper just a little. That Monday morning, Jasper emailed Liz: It was great to see you. Really miss our friendship. 

After an exchange of messages, they met for a weekday lunch at which they discussed recent articles they’d either loved or been outraged by, and then Jasper confided the financial pressure he felt now that Susan had decided she wanted to quit law and remain at home with Aidan. The last few years had, apparently, been rough: as a newborn, Aidan had had colic; Susan had initially struggled with breast-feeding though now was unwilling to give it up; and she was spending enormous quantities of time online trying to determine which potentially toxic chemicals were contained in the cleaning agent used on the carpeting in the halls of their building. Meanwhile, Jasper was spinning his wheels at work. He knew he was capable of running a magazine—he was still a senior editor rather than an executive editor, which was the usual jumping-off point for being an editor in chief—and welcomed Liz’s thoughts about what publication might be most suitable for his continued ascent up the professional ladder. Jasper’s great respect for Liz’s ideas and opinions, his apparent wish for feedback from her on every subject, even the subject of whether it was weird that his wife was still breast-feeding a nineteen-month-old, was simultaneously the most flattering and the most insulting dynamic she had ever experienced. She thought that if the option were available, he would run a cord between her brain and his, or perhaps simply download the contents of her cerebral cortex. 

The next time she and Jasper met after the five-year hiatus, it was for drinks, and after the third round, Jasper said that he and Susan had together reached the painful conclusion that their marriage had run its course and that while both of them had had the best of intentions, they agreed they’d made a mistake choosing each other. The catch was that if Susan or any of her siblings divorced, Susan’s deeply Catholic grandmother, a rich, spiteful, and surprisingly hale ninety-eight-year-old living on the Upper East Side, would cut them out of her will, and Aidan wouldn’t get to attend private school. Thus, although Jasper and Susan had each other’s blessings to pursue extramarital relationships, they would continue to live together until Susan’s grandmother died. After conveying this information, Jasper swallowed, and there were tears in his brown eyes as he said, “It was always you, Nin. I messed up so badly, but it was always you.” 

At points during their five-year silence, Liz had indulged in the fantasy that Jasper would show up at her office or apartment—possibly, as in a movie, having run through the rain—to urgently declare his love. He might even, in such scenarios, have said, It was always you. But he would not have still been legally wed to Susan; certainly, he would not be the father of a nineteen-month-old. And yet, through the shimmery softness of the three gins she’d consumed, Liz thought that these compromising circumstances gave the situation a certain credibility: It wasn’t too good to be true. She didn’t need to feel unsettled by getting everything she’d always hoped for. 

Back at her apartment, the consummation of their whatever-it-was also was not a dream come true—certainly fourteen years of buildup and more than a half dozen cocktails between them didn’t help matters—but it was adequate, and afterward, when Jasper fell asleep holding her, she wished that her twenty-two-year-old self could know that it would, in the end, happen for them. Her twenty-two-year-old self might have been less charmed when Jasper woke up forty minutes later, took a hasty shower, and hurried home to his wife and child; despite Jasper and Susan’s conjugal agreement, it was Jasper’s turn the next morning to get up with Aidan at five a.m. 

Within a week, Jasper had made three more visits to Liz’s apartment and in two cases slept over; patterns had been established. The drawbacks to this version of a relationship were so glaringly obvious—because members of Susan’s extended family loyal to her grandmother lived in Manhattan, discretion was necessary, and Liz and Jasper therefore didn’t dine together in restaurants, nor were they each other’s dates for work-related functions—that they hardly seemed worth dwelling on. On the other hand, she was able to enjoy genuine closeness, as well as physical intimacy, with someone she knew well and cared for deeply, while still having time to work and run and read and see friends—perhaps, in fact, more time than when she’d been scouring dating websites or spending three hours at a stretch analyzing her singleness with Jane or other women. A few friends knew about Jasper, as did her older sister, and their skeptical reactions were for Liz sufficient deterrent to discuss the unusual arrangement further; it was too easy for it to sound like Jasper was doing nothing more than cheating. 

One Friday evening in late May, two years into Liz’s reconciliation with Jasper, Liz was at Jane’s apartment; Jane chopped kale for a salad while Liz opened the bottle of red wine she’d brought. “Are you really making me drink alone again?” Liz said. 

“I’m fostering a hospitable uterine environment,” Jane replied. 

“Meaning, yes, I’m on my own.”

“Sorry.” Jane frowned.

“Don’t apologize.” Liz pulled a glass from Jane’s shelf. “And any fetus would be lucky to inhabit your womb. I bet you have the Ritz of uteruses. Uteri?” Liz held her lled glass aloft. “To Latinate nouns and to reproduction.” Jane tapped her water glass against Liz’s as Liz added, “Remember Sandra at my office who took three years to get pregnant? She said she went to this acupuncturist who—” In her pocket, Liz’s phone buzzed, and she wondered if it was Jasper; apparently, Jane wondered the same thing because she said, with not entirely concealed disapproval, “Is that him?” 

But it wasn’t; it was their sister Kitty. Liz held up the phone so Jane could see the screen before saying, “Hey, Kitty. I’m here with Jane.” 

“It’s Dad,” Kitty said, and she was clearly crying. “He’s in the hospital.” 

***

Half an hour after complaining to Mrs. Bennet of heartburn that he attributed to the veal cacciatore she’d made for dinner, Mr. Bennet had climbed the staircase from the entry hall on the first floor of the Tudor to the second-floor and collapsed, gasping for breath. Lydia had heard him fall, Mary had called 911, and he’d been transported by ambulance to Christ Hospital. 

Upon receiving Kitty’s phone call at Jane’s apartment, Liz had immediately begun trying to find flights home while Jane put away the food; as it turned out, the evening’s final flights to Cincinnati out of both LaGuardia and JFK had already departed. With reservations for the early morning, Liz returned to her apartment, tossed clothes into a suitcase, slept fitfully for a couple hours, and met Jane again beyond LaGuardia’s Terminal D security checkpoint at six a.m. By then, their father was out of a six-hour surgery, intubated, and unconscious in the intensive care unit. 

Though he was awake and his breathing tube had been removed when Liz and Jane arrived at the hospital straight from the airport, he was alarmingly subdued and appeared much smaller in his hospital gown than in his usual uniform of khakis, dress shirt, and navy blazer. At the sight of him, Liz bit back tears, while Jane wept openly. “My dear Jane—” Mr. Bennet said, but he spoke no more; he offered no drollery to reassure them. The many wires monitoring his vital signs beeped indifferently. 

He remained in the hospital for a week. But on his second day after surgery, he’d moved from intensive care to the step-down unit, and his health had improved consistently. In increments that were less steadily apparent than manifest in sudden moments, his coloring brightened, his energy increased, his mordant humor returned, and it seemed then that he really would be all right. 

In the meantime, the eldest Bennet sisters fell quickly into certain patterns: They slept in twin beds in the third-floor room that, when they were growing up, had belonged to Liz. She’d set the alarm on her cellphone for seven o’clock, and they’d rise and run together before the day grew too hot: around the curve of Grandin Road, past the bulge of the Cincinnati Country Club, right on Madison Road and again on Observatory, then up the long incline of Edwards Road’s first hill, which was gently graded but endless, and its second hill, which was short and steep. Back at home, they’d eat cereal, take turns showering, then determine what needed to be accomplished that day. 

Originally overshadowed by their father’s ill health, but asserting itself with increasing insistence as Mr. Bennet improved, was the sisters’ realization that the Tudor, built in 1903, was in a state of profound disrepair. For the last twenty years, Liz and Jane had made three-day visits home, usually around the holidays, and Liz realized in retrospect that her mother had likely spent weeks preparing for their arrival. This time, when Mrs. Bennet hadn’t prepared at all, mail lay in stacks on the marble table in the entry hall; mold grew in the basin of the third-floor toilet; spiderwebs clung to light fixtures and the corners of ceilings; and Jane and Liz were sharing a room because the bed and most of the floor in the adjacent room that had once belonged to Jane were blocked by an assortment of boxes, some empty save for bubble wrap but some as yet unopened, addressed by various high-end retailers to Mrs. Frederick M. Bennet. The day before her father had been discharged from the hospital, Liz had used the blade of a scissors to open three packages, which contained, respectively, a plush cream-colored throw pillow overlaid by an embroidered pineapple; a set of royal blue bath towels featuring Mrs. Bennet’s monogram; and twelve dessert plates with Yorkshire terriers on them (the Bennets had never owned a Yorkshire terrier—or, for that matter, any other breed of dog). 

That her mother devoted extensive attention to housewares was not news; the usual impetus for Mrs. Bennet to call Liz in New York was to ask whether she was in need of, say, a porcelain teapot with an ivy motif that normally cost $260 but was on sale for $230. Invariably, without broaching the topic of who might pay for the teapot in question, Liz ruefully declined; it sounded charming, but she had such limited space, and also, she’d remind her mother, she wasn’t a huge tea drinker. Once, years before, Liz had been talked into accepting as a gift a large gold-rimmed platter—“For your dinner parties!” Mrs. Bennet had said brightly—but upon learning eighteen months later that Liz had during that time held no dinner parties, Mrs. Bennet had insisted that Liz give the platter back. Shipping it had cost $55. So no, it wasn’t a secret that her mother fetishized all manner of domestic décor, but the sheer quantity in Jane’s former bedroom, plus the fact of so many boxes being unopened, raised for Liz the question of whether some type of pathology might be involved. 

Meanwhile, on an almost daily basis, the Tudor revealed its failures: dripping faucets, splintering floorboards, obscurely sized sconce lightbulbs that had burned out. In many instances, it was unclear to Liz whether a particular predicament, such as the eight-foot-square water-stained patch on the eastern side of the living room wall, was new or whether her parents and sisters had simply been turning a blind eye to it for months or years. 

The three acres of land surrounding the Tudor presented its own set of complications, including an extensive growth of poison ivy behind the house and a fungus on the large sycamore tree under which Liz had once held picnics for her dolls. As far as she could tell, her father had for quite some time done no more outside than mow the grass and, since getting sick, had not even done that. It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could no longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he—they—had grown weary and inflexible. 

During the hours she’d allotted each day for work, Liz would open her laptop on the pink Formica desk her parents had purchased for her in 1987 and respond to queries from Mascara editors about a recent article she’d turned in, schedule or conduct interviews, fend off or follow up with publicists. In addition to features on varying topics, Liz wrote three mini-profiles each month for Mascara’s long-running “Women Who Dare” column—for example, a corporal in Iraq, a blind aerobics instructor, or a principal in Wichita who’d saved her students from a tornado. Although Liz privately thought of the subjects as “Attractive, Well-Groomed Women Who Dare,” finding and interviewing such individuals was her favorite part of her job. 

Jane, by contrast, was not attempting to work from Cincinnati. A few times a week, she’d attend a yoga class at a studio in Clifton, but in the capacity of student rather than teacher. Yet still, for both women, the days passed surprisingly quickly, a cycle of morning runs, doctors’ appointments, errands, meal preparation, and family dinners. May had soon turned into June and June into July. 

Jasper and Liz texted each other frequently, sometimes hourly. From him, accompanying a photo of the turbaned breakfast sandwich vendor at the corner of Fifty-fifth and Sixth: Pretty sure this guy misses u. 

Liz had returned to New York for one night after her father was discharged from the hospital, a trip that allowed her to meet with her editor, collect additional clothes from her own and Jane’s apartments, discard the open containers of yogurt in their refrigerators, give away her bamboo plant, and provide copies of keys to an assistant in Barnard College’s Residential Life & Housing Office, a woman who had on late notice and with surprising good humor procured undergraduates who would until August 31 be Liz and Jane’s respective subletters. Once these tasks were accomplished but before riding back to the airport, Liz met Jasper at his apartment at eleven a.m. on a Tuesday; as she arrived, Susan and Aidan were leaving for a gymnastics class. Though they hadn’t seen one another since their encounter on the High Line two years before—in the interval, Aidan had transformed from an overgrown baby to a miniature person—Susan said in as ordinary a way as she might greet a neighbor, “Hey, Liz.” 

But once Susan and Aidan were gone, as Liz and Jasper removed their own clothes in the bedroom—they didn’t have a great deal of time and, in any case, were well beyond the stage of effortful seduction—Liz experienced a disquiet that was both unanticipated and unsurprising. She said, “Do you and Susan still sleep in this bed together?” 

“When we do, it’s like brother and sister,” Jasper said. “And it’s only because our couch is so uncomfortable. Don’t forget, she has a boyfriend.” 

Naked, Jasper climbed onto the bed, which was unmade, its beige sheets and lavender-colored cotton blanket pushed toward the foot of the mattress. There was a moment when Liz almost couldn’t continue—the sight of Aidan, along with this setting of Jasper and Susan’s ongoing domesticity, no matter what their agreement, was just too awkward. But there Jasper was, the physiological evidence of his readiness already apparent; and he was a good-looking man; and she needed to get to the airport; and the reality was that she, too, wanted to have sex—it had been and would be a while. She unfastened and shrugged off her bra, which was her last remaining article of clothing, and joined him in the bed. Five hours later, her plane landed in Cincinnati. 

Five

Mrs. Bennet had not, as it turned out, needed to lean on Mrs. Lucas excessively in order to convince the latter to facilitate a meeting between the Bennet daughters and Chip Bingley. Upon receiving Mrs. Bennet’s phone call, Mrs. Lucas had declared that nothing could bring her greater pleasure, or reflect more flatteringly on Cincinnati, than the attendance of the beautiful Bennet girls and their parents at the barbecue that the Lucases were hosting for several recent arrivals to Christ Hospital, where Dr. Lucas was both a physician and a high-ranking executive. 

Mrs. Lucas shared with Mrs. Bennet the affliction of an unmarried adult daughter, though in Mrs. Lucas’s case the disappointment was embodied just once rather than multiplied five-fold. Charlotte Lucas, who had been Liz’s classmate and closest friend at Seven Hills for fifteen years, was also single, a bright and poised human resources manager at Procter & Gamble who since graduating from college had been about seventy-five pounds overweight. To Mrs. Bennet’s mind, this fact placed Mrs. Lucas’s misfortune in a separate, albeit equally frustrating, category from the one in which her own daughters fell. Obviously, Charlotte wasn’t married because she was heavy; therefore, she simply needed to go on a diet. Mrs. Bennet’s own daughters, however, possessing no discernible physical or personal flaws (except for poor homely Mary), had no clear means of remediation. 

Mrs. Bennet, who herself was not a stranger to rotundity, had wondered if Mrs. Lucas considered Charlotte a candidate for Chip’s affections, but Mrs. Lucas’s unhesitating inclusion of the Bennets at the barbecue reassured Mrs. Bennet that her friend harbored no unrealistic expectations where Charlotte was concerned. Thus, despite having failed to pair off any of her daughters in the two decades she’d been actively trying, Mrs. Bennet’s hopes for the barbecue were high indeed. 

The Lucases lived in Indian Hill, a suburb fifteen miles from downtown and home to the sort of Cincinnatians who enjoyed owning horses or at least purebred dogs who could roam on multi-acre properties. The Lucases’ home was a vast brick colonial with a balcony over the front door and a slate roof. In the kitchen, various Bennets embraced various Lucases, Jane passed off her sponge cake, and Liz walked to the window to survey the dozen or so guests already chatting on the flagstone patio in the backyard. “Jane, come see your future husband,” she called merrily. 

Jane joined her. “I take it Chip Bingley is the tall, dark, and handsome one?” 

Charlotte Lucas said, “No, Chip is the guy in the seersucker shorts. The tall, dark, and handsome one is his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, who joined the stroke center at the University of Cincinnati last year as a neurosurgeon. The rumor is he’s also single, but he’s kind of standoffish. He and Chip went to medical school together.” Charlotte turned to Jane. “Did you really never watch Eligible when Chip was on?” 

“She’s never watched any of Eligible,” Liz said. “She’s like a unicorn.” 

“Oh, Chip’s season was fantastic,” Charlotte said. “There was an actual physical fight involving ripped-out hair extensions.” 

Mary, who had caught up to her mother’s car on the drive out, said, “I find Eligible degrading to women.” 

“So you’ve mentioned.” Liz glanced at Charlotte. “Did you say Chip’s friend’s name is Fitzwilliam, and if so, did he just sail over on the Mayflower?” 

“He goes by his last name.” Charlotte grinned. “Though I’m not sure Darcy is much better.” 

In recent years, Charlotte and Liz hadn’t spent time together beyond Christmas parties or lunches scheduled during Liz’s trips home from New York, but they still took immense pleasure in each other’s company. Indeed, it had been one of the highlights of Liz’s longer-term return to Cincinnati to resume her friendship with Charlotte in a genuine fashion, as adults, and to find that her enjoyment of the woman was no less than it had been of the girl. They only half-jokingly speculated about whether they were the last two single people from their high school class, though Liz wondered if Charlotte suffered from this distinction more acutely—Charlotte lived in Cincinnati, where her mother could nag her at closer proximity; she didn’t have the buffer of an older sister who was, ostensibly, even more overdue to marry; she did wish to have children; and she didn’t have a secret boyfriend. 

“Chip is shorter than he looks on TV, right?” Charlotte said. “But definitely cute. And that guy in the V-neck, Keith, is another new emergency doctor”—the man in question was black, the only non-white person at the party—“and the woman in the striped dress is an intern. The man next to her is her husband, and that toddler is theirs.” In addition to these guests were an attractive blond woman Liz didn’t recognize and two older couples Liz had previously met at the Lucases’ New Years’ Day open house; the men in both couples also worked as doctors at Christ Hospital. 

“Is Keith single, too?” Liz asked. “Because if he is, Jane, there’s basically a man buffet for you to pick from.” 

“I might remind you,” Mr. Bennet said as he blithely fixed himself a gin and tonic at the nearby wet bar, “that you’re not observing those gentlemen from behind a two-way mirror.” Mr. Bennet held up his hand, and Dr. Lucas waved back. 

“I doubt they read lips,” Liz said.

Jane turned to Charlotte. “Is the blond woman a doctor?” 

“That’s Caroline Bingley, Chip’s sister. She lives in L.A., but she’s helping him get settled here.”

“Chip is handsome,” Jane said, and Liz and Charlotte exchanged an amused look.

“Then let’s go out and I’ll introduce you,” Charlotte said. 

***

After the flurry of greetings, Liz found herself talking to Keith, who was congenial and, she quickly discovered, engaged to a woman finishing her medical residency in San Diego. By the time the chicken breasts had been grilled, and the potato salad, coleslaw, and rolls set out, Liz and Keith had covered the topics of San Diego’s climate, Cincinnati’s climate, and Cincinnati’s famous chili, which Keith had not yet sampled. As Liz and Keith moved on to Keith’s interest in golf, Liz was gratified to observe that Jane appeared to be deep in conversation with Chip Bingley; that conversation continued as Jane and Chip procured food and took seats side by side on a mortared stone retaining wall, soon joined by Chip’s sister Caroline. 

When Liz had prepared her own plate of food, she walked to the four-person patio table where Fitzwilliam Darcy was sitting with the husband of the intern and one of the older doctors. The older doctor and the husband were discussing how the Reds were faring this season, and, addressing Fitzwilliam Darcy (or, Liz reminded herself, just Darcy), Liz pointed to the empty chair. “Is this seat taken?” 

“It is,” Darcy said. He didn’t temper his rebuff with any apology, and Liz assumed he must have misheard her; he must have thought she’d asked if the seat was free. 

She said, “It is taken?”

“Yes,” Darcy said, and he remained unapologetic. “It is.”

In spite of Charlotte’s warning about Darcy seeming stand-offish, Liz was so taken aback that she was tempted to say, Forgive me for imagining I was worthy of sharing your table. So he had gone to Harvard Medical School; so he was a neuro-surgeon—neither fact gave him carte blanche to be rude. Before moving away, she smiled in a manner she hoped he understood was fake. 

Spying Kitty and Lydia nearby, Liz walked to them and perched on the cushioned ottoman by Kitty’s knees. Her younger sisters were debating the ideal time to arrive at their next gathering, which apparently would be hosted by the owner of their CrossFit gym. Lydia pointed toward the roll on Liz’s plate. “Don’t carbs make you feel sluggish?” 

“Everything in moderation,” Liz said. There were many reasons she found her sisters’ enthusiasm for CrossFit and the Paleo Diet irritating, including that Liz herself had been familiar with both long before they had, having written an article about CrossFit back in 2007. Another source of irritation was that her sisters looked fantastic; they had always been attractive, but since taking up CrossFit, they were practically glowing with energy and strength. 

When Liz’s phone vibrated in her pocket, she was almost finished eating and even more insulted by Darcy’s snub than she’d been at first, because the chair beside him had remained empty all this time. She took the opportunity to go inside, wash the barbecue sauce from her hands at the kitchen sink, and check the message. 

Southampton biggest clusterfuck of all time, read the text from Jasper, and she typed back, Hang in there. When reworks? 

God knows but none will b as bright as u, Jasper texted. 

A reference to my sparkling personality or sequined nipple pasties? Liz typed.

Yowza, Jasper replied.

Standing just inside the back door, looking down at her phone, Liz gradually became aware of a conversation occurring on the screen door’s other side; after focusing for a few seconds, she realized the speakers were Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. 

“—much better than I expected,” Chip was saying. “When I told people I was moving to Cincinnati, I was practically getting condolences, but it’s not bad at all.” 

“Said like a man who’s just spent an hour talking to the only good-looking woman at the party,” Darcy replied. “Not counting your sister, of course.” Liz could hear the rattle of ice cubes, then Darcy added, “I’m sure they do their best, but Cincinnatians are painfully provincial.” Inside the kitchen, Liz smiled. It was oddly satisfying to receive confirmation of Darcy’s snobbishness. 

In a friendly tone, Chip said, “In your first year here, you didn’t find any lady Buckeyes who met your exacting standards?” 

“I can hardly think of anything less tempting,” Darcy said. 

Chip chuckled. “Someone told me Jane’s sister Liz is single, too.” 

“I suppose it would be unchivalrous to say I’m not surprised.” 

Liz’s jaw dropped; abruptly, the eavesdropping had ceased to be satisfying. Who did this man think he was, and what did he have against her personally? When being introduced, they hadn’t exchanged more than ten words. 

“Here’s what I’ve learned about the people in this city,” Darcy was saying. “They grade their women on a curve. If someone is described as sophisticated, it means once during college she visited Paris, and if someone is described as beautiful, it means she’s fifteen pounds overweight instead of forty. And they’re obsessed with matchmaking. They act like they’re doing you a favor by conscripting you to have coffee with the elementary school teacher from their church during the two free hours you might have in an entire week. I’ve lost count of how many of my colleagues’ wives have tried to set me up. With your having been on TV, they must be licking their chops.” 

“You know what?” Chip said. “I’m making it my mission to get you a social life in Cincinnati, and don’t try to tell me that’s an oxymoron. If all you have is two hours a week, let’s make them a great two hours.” His affectionate tone was, Liz thought, no particular credit to him—not only was Chip apparently unmoved to defend her from Darcy’s aspersions, but it hadn’t even seemed to occur to the former that his friend’s words were offensive. 

“Good for you if you like it here now,” Darcy said. “And I don’t mean that facetiously. But I’ll be curious what you think this time next year.” 

As Chip began speaking, Liz pushed open the screen door and, in an emphatically friendly tone, said, “Hi!” She glanced from Chip’s face to Darcy’s and, making eye contact with Darcy, held his gaze for an extra beat. “I was just inside thinking what grade I’d give myself,” she said. “I realized it would be an A-plus, but I’ve heard we grade on a curve here, so I’m probably what—more like a B for the coasts? Or a B-minus? If you have a minute to figure it out, be sure to let me know.” Without waiting for either to respond, she walked past them, eager to repeat Darcy’s comments as widely and quickly as she could. 

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Curtis Sittenfeld
Jane Austen

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