I am easy to bait when it comes to P&P retellings but I also approach every retelling very carefully. Not only because Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books but also because it’s very, very hard to translate into a different era. Different settings, fantasy worlds – that could all work, but setting a story for which societal norms (and restrictions for women) are so vital in a modern period is a really difficult feat. I’m so happy Ibi Zoboi managed to do that really well, even if I didn’t love everything about this book.
by Ibi Zoboi
Published: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 304 pages
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.
Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.
Zuri Benitez lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and her neighbourhood is her entire pride. She wants things to remain just as they are, to hang out with the people from her block, to eat her mother’s traditional food, to enjoy the block parties and to play basketball with her friends. Already, things are changing because her elder sister Janae spent her first year off in college, and Zuri is applying to colleges as well. She really doesn’t want to let go of the world she knows and she has no interest in the wider world. When the Darcys – a wealthy black family – move into the mansion across the street, Zuri sees them as even more of a threat to her home. So she is determined not to like them, even before she knows anything about them.
Setting Pride and Prejudice in modern Brooklyn was the one thing Ibi Zoboi did really – and I mean really – well. All the groundwork is there. Ainsley and Darius are brothers (so you get two Darcys), the big reveal about Warren (Wickham) was really well done, and I enjoyed how Zuri and Darius slowly get to like each other more over the course of the story. All of this could have gone so very wrong. Pride and Prejudice, after all, is based on the fact that women of a certain status don’t work, so sometimes their only option for a safe life is to marry rich. Here, the stakes are obviously not as high – this is about finding a nice boyfriend and if it didn’t work out for the Benitez sisters, their lives and livelihood wouldn’t literally be threatened. Their lives also don’t magically become easier by having a rich boyfriend.
The one thing that I imagine is the hardest to retell is the scandalous reveal of a Wickham/Warren’s character. It was such a horrible thing in the original Pride and Prejudice because society was very different. For an unmarried couple to be together without a chaperone could have dire consequences for the entire family. Obviously, this wouldn’t work today. So Ibi Zoboi had to think of something that would also mean a threat to a young woman’s reputation, and she did it! She found a way. Again, the repercussions are mild compared to 19th century England, but it worked beautifully. It showed Warren for the prick he is and it showed the negative impact of his actions on a young woman’s life. I thought this was rather cleverly done and almost cheered when I read that part (not cheered because of what happened, obviously, but because I wanted to applaud the author).
Now my biggest problem with this book – and sadly one that drags my rating down a lot – is that I really didn’t like Zuri. She has none of the qualities that make Lizzie Bennet so likable. Sure, for the story to work, Zuri has to be prejudiced, but I hated how she was so completely narrow-minded about everything. It was like everything she didn’t know was automatically bad, and everything that didn’t fit her narrow idea of her perfect neighbourhood, wasn’t worth her time. Of course it made the story work but it also made her a character I didn’t want to root for. Zuri doesn’t just worry that people who are different will change her world, but she immediately judges others based on their clothing style or because they use proper grammar. If they’re not black enough in her opinion, then she doesn’t like them and doesn’t even give them a chance to prove that they’re nice people despite not looking or talking the way she wants them to.
The other characters were all rather flat. Each of them gets one characteristic and that’s it. Zuri’s younger sisters Layla and Kayla are boy-crazy, Marisol is all about money (an interesting change to stuck-up Mary in the original), and Janae is nice. Ainsley doesn’t have much personality at all and Warren is simply Zuri’s perfect “boy from the hood” without any depth. I did like Darius who at least shows different sides of his character at different points in the story. But even then, Zuri is suddenly pissed that he’s not exactly how she pinned him down, but actually has layers and doesn’t always behave the same. I mean, who behaves the same when visiting their grandma as opposed to a teen party? I thought it was nice seeing some depth in Darius’ character but Zuri, narrow-minded and closed-off to everything new as she is, didn’t.
Another thing I enjoyed was the added cultural aspect. Zuri’s block is like a big family, comprised of people from different places with different cultures and traditions. Zuri’s relationship to Madrina – a sort of surrogate superstitous grandmother who Zuri goes to for advice – was lovely and added an original layer to this retelling. I actually would have loved to see more of that, to understand why Zuri holds on so desperately to her home and doesn’t want it to change in any way.
The writing wasn’t my case at all. There were so many instances in which we are told why Zuri loves her block so much – the block parties, the way she talks with other residents, how everyone dresses, etc. – but are rarely shown. The prose itself is simple, without flourishes or anything particularly noteworthy. I also had some trouble with the dialogue which switches back and forth between Zuri’s preferred slang, something she uses to gauge in other people to see if they’re “hood” enough, and regular English. While it’s clear that the Darcys don’t use slang to set them apart culturally from Zuri and her hood, I didn’t quite understand why Zuri and her family aren’t consistent in the way they speak.
Zuri is also a poet and the story is interspersed with her poetry about life in Bushwick, the new rich kids moving in next door, dealing with change, and everything else that this book is about. I’m sad to say I wasn’t a big fan of the poetry itself. Poetry is very hit or miss for me anyway and that is no fault of the author! I usually can’t put my finger on why I like a particular poem and not another, it’s just a gut feeling for me. In this case, I didn’t really like any of Zuri’s poems. They had no emotional impact on me but, but because they are all short, they also didn’t bother me all that much.
As for the ending (if you know Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know at least one aspect of it), I found it a little weird and out of the blue. It may be clear from the beginning that, no matter how she fights it, Zuri will have to deal with change sooner or later. She does want to go to college and that means leaving her home behind at least for most of the year. But the way the story actually ends bummed me out a little. It wasn’t a bad ending at all, I just found it surprising and didn’t get enough time to process it until the book was just over.
So, the good and the not-so-good balance each other out. I definitely enjoyed reading this but it wasn’t groundbreaking or something I’d recommend to everyone. For fans of Jane Austen who want to see a beloved story set in modern Brooklyn, this is a fun story. For people looking for a good romance with multi-layered characters… not so much.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good