Tuesday, March 5, 2013

“Prom & Prejudice” by Elizabeth Eulberg and its Failure as an Austen Re-Imagining.

“Prom & Prejudice”
Author: Elizabeth Eulberg.
Length: 231 pages.

Publisher: Point.

Summary (taken from Goodreads): From the much-buzzed-about author of THE LONELY HEARTS CLUB (already blurbed by Stephenie Meyer, Lauren Myracle, and Jen Calonita), a prom-season delight of Jane Austen proportions.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.
After winter break, the girls at the very prestigious Longbourn Academy become obsessed with the prom. Lizzie Bennet, who attends Longbourn on a scholarship, isn't interested in designer dresses and expensive shoes, but her best friend, Jane, might be - especially now that Charles Bingley is back from a semester in London.
Lizzie is happy about her friend's burgeoning romance but less than impressed by Charles's friend, Will Darcy, who's snobby and pretentious. Darcy doesn't seem to like Lizzie either, but she assumes it's because her family doesn't have money. Clearly, Will Darcy is a pompous jerk - so why does Lizzie find herself drawn to him anyway?

Everyone knows something about “Pride and Prejudice”, even if it’s only fragments of a plot or character they’ve gleamed from a TV show or internet review or Googling pictures of a dripping wet Colin Firth. The iconic story of social standings, misunderstandings and the oft-imitated Lizzie and Mr Darcy has had an indelible impact on literature at large, particularly YA and romance (two genres which are heavily entwined). The chances are that you have seen or read at least one version of the story, be it through the diary of Bridget Jones or the undead twists of Seth Graheme-Smith. Elizabeth Eulberg, former publicist to one Stephenie Meyer, brings her own twist to the table, through the scope of a privileged boarding school, where connections are key and the end of year prom is the highlight of the social calendar. So far, so typical for the tale. However, where Eulberg’s book fails in the same way countless Austen re-imaginings before it have failed.

High schools, on the surface, seem like an ideal setting for a modern day Austen re-telling. Many of the social mores and expectations present in the original tale translate surprisingly well to the heightened teenage stakes so commonly found in teen comedies and dramas. “Clueless” stands as arguably the most effective  adaptation of “Emma” because it understands how to remain honest to the source material while still leaving enough wriggle room to allow for necessary deviations. “Prom and Prejudice” does none of that. It takes the shallowest reading of the source material imaginable and joins the dots to form a coherent and recognisable adaptation of the story, but with none of the wit, charm or social commentary of the original. Eulberg is so desperate to be as honest to the plotting of the original work that she ends up regurgitating each plot point and leaves behind something that’s not particularly enjoyable (although it’s a very quick, mindless read) and incredibly dull. While a re-telling of something as iconic as “Pride and Prejudice” requires some faithfulness to the material, with a basic understanding of what Austen was trying to discuss, simply recounting it with a few minor contemporary changes is utterly pointless.

There’s no spark to this tale at all. Lizzie is a scholarship student at a prestigious school, where she is bullied mercilessly for not being as privileged as her classmates, while Darcy is the wealthy boy from the nearby boys’ school who she takes an immediate dislike to. The stakes just aren’t there for this story – prom invites aren’t exactly marriage proposals, and the author totally failed to make me feel the importance of the social workings of this world. Just being told that prom is important is not enough. It didn’t help that all the snooty rich bullies Lizzie went to school with were as fully developed as the villains from the Tintin comics. None of the teenagers in this story talk like teenagers: They talk like lazy Austen rip-offs read by twenty something adults. The dialogue feels so completely at odds with how the rest of the book is written. The style jumps from colloquial teenagers to 19th century formality as found in the summaries of Spark Notes. Given that the novel is set in America, yet everyone talks like Regency England, I can’t help but think Eulberg was forced to rush this book out by an impatient editor.

Overall, “Prom and Prejudice” is a fluffy and quick read that I finished in about 3 hours, including tea breaks, but as an Austen adaptation, it is decidedly underwhelming, the shallowest take on the source material imaginable. There are glimmers of potential within the story – tackling the saturation of consumerism amongst the teenage generation, the American class system – but they’re ignored in favour of showing how this book is so totally like Austen but with a modern twist, and in the end it feels patronising and irritating. If you want an Austen re-telling that actually manages to balance fluff and satire in a modern setting, take “Clueless” every single time.