'Pride' thrusts Jane Austen into 21-century Bushwick

Ibi Zoboi’s rendition of 'Pride and Prejudice' is crackling and full of life, fit for recommendation to both to fellow Janeites and YA readers at large.

Pride By Ibi Zoboi HarperCollins Publishers 304 pp.

“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.

“But it’s not just the junky stuff they get rid of. People can be thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever all broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love.”

This is how we meet our snarling narrator, Zuri Luz Benitez, sometimes known as ZZ. She’s the fiery 21st-century Elizabeth Bennet of Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, a remix of Jane Austen’s 1813 classic, “Pride and Prejudice.”

Zoboi’s rendition is crackling and full of life. I couldn’t recommend it more highly, both to fellow Janeites and YA readers at large.

This time around, oldest sister Jane is now Janae, sensitive and sugar-sweet, just back from her first year at Syracuse University – the first Benitez to leave the fold. Dreary, bookish Mary becomes offbeat, money-obsessed Marisol, and flighty Kitty and Lydia are 13-year-old twins Kayla and Layla.

“If Janae is the sticky sweetness keeping us sisters together, then I’m the hard candy shell, the protector,” Zuri explains. “If anyone wants to get to the Benitez sisters, they’ll have to crack open my heart first.”

The five sisters live with their Haitian-Dominican parents in Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. They’ve lived in the same dingy apartment their whole lives, on the same colorful block with the same loud, everybody-knows-everybody neighbors. Zuri describes the family as sheltered; the only times she’s ever left NYC were once to a mall in New Jersey, once to a water park in Pennsylvania. Thus she’s fanatical in her devotion to Bushwick (not Brooklyn, thank you very much – showing you just how small ZZ’s field of vision is).

But gentrification slowly creeps into her beloved Bushwick, having swept through nearby neighborhoods already. ZZ mourns, “These neighborhoods are like my face and body when I was in middle school – familiar but changing before my eyes.”

When the wealthy Darcy family buys, guts, and remodels the building across the street, this tight-knit community struggles to process change of this magnitude. The Darcys’ grand piano, elegant professional decor, and glamorous parties rub everyone the wrong way. (Fun fact: the Netherfield ball is now a housewarming cocktail party, and somehow – I genuinely don’t understand how – Zoboi makes it even more cringy and mortifying than the original calamity.) What’s more, their two sons, Darius (our Mr. Darcy) and Ainsley (Mr. Bingley) couldn’t have more different approaches to their new street – Ainsley wants to befriend everyone, especially Janae, whereas Darius is stand-offish and proud, unsure why they’ve come here at all.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with judgmental, brassy ZZ, who fears the loss of her neighborhood and her favorite sister in one summer. The culture clash between Darius and Zuri reaches fever pitch when they lob insults at each other like “bougie” vs. “ghetto,” “real” vs. “corny.” Thank goodness there’s Warren (Mr. Wickham), whose swaggy charm feels like home to Zuri. When he says Darius’s dad tried to get him kicked out of private school, Zuri’s hatred of the Darcy family crystallizes.

And yet, on a visit to Howard University in Washington D.C., when she bumps into Darius and his little sister, he seems more relaxed and likeable. Sparks fly, but it’s tough to tell whether they’re from a kindling attraction or the fires of loathing.

Change is Zuri’s biggest fear and greatest desire. As she faces senior year and her own impending college journey, she wants to evolve and expand but keep the rest of the world static. Her trip to Howard shows her just how exceptional change can be: “There’s enough wide-open space for me to feel like I can actually chase my dreams here, and I’ll be able to reach them too.”

She craves growth just as much as she fears it: “I wonder if [previous students have] gone back to their blocks or their towns and changed them in any way. I wonder if Howar d changed them, and maybe they couldn’t go back to their old hoods because they’ve grown too big, too tall. Not in size, but in ... experience. In ... feeling. I wonder how I’ll change too.”

Y’all know how this ends, at least in the big picture. Still, let Ibi Zoboi guide you through the details in her inimitable style. Zoboi deploys both tenderness and ruthless honesty as she explores issues of sisterhood and family, class, gentrification, and cultural identity. “Pride” is ripe for the movie-fying, and a triumphant follow-up to Zoboi’s smash debut, “American Street.”

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