Eligible (The Austen Project #4) - Curtis Sittenfeld
When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.
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