According to Jocelyn, it is "essential to reintroduce Austen into your life regularly…let her look around." This is exactly her aim when she launches the "all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club" and invites five of her friends and acquaintances to meet and discuss one of Austen's novels every month.
Each of the members "has a private Austen," Karen Joy Fowler tells us in the opening line of THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB. For Jocelyn, a compulsive matchmaker and organizer extraordinaire of other people's lives, Austen "wrote wonderful novels about love and courtship, but never married." Bernadette, the oldest member of the group, has lived a colorful sixty-seven years, including a brief foray into show business and several trips to the altar. Her private Austen is "a comic genius."
Sylvia, Jocelyn's childhood friend, has recently separated from her husband of thirty-two years. Not being a happy ending person, Sylvia's Austen is more practical --- "a daughter, a sister, an aunt." For Sylvia's daughter Allegra --- a strikingly beautiful, self-described "garden-variety lesbian" --- Austen writes about "the impact of financial need on the intimate lives of women."
Prudie, a high school French teacher afraid to visit France because it might not live up to her expectations, is the youngest member of the group at twenty-eight. Her Austen is the one "whose books changed every time you read them, so that one year they were all romances and the next, you suddenly noticed Austen's cool, ironic prose."
As for Grigg, no one knows who his private Austen is. The only man in the group, he initially raises suspicion among the other members --- for being a man, for being a man in a Jane Austen book club, and for showing up at the first meeting with an obviously brand new collection of Austen's works.
Chapter by chapter, Fowler uses a different Austen novel to illuminate each of her characters. As the months flow by, Jocelyn, Bernadette, Sylvia, Allegra, Prudie and Grigg each face their own changes and challenges. Life, death, marriage, love and friendship were subjects that made for great storytelling in Jane Austen's day … and they still do, two hundred years later in twenty-first century California.
It will make for a richer reading experience if you're familiar with Austen's novels, but don't despair if you're not; turn to the back of the book for a synopsis of each story. When you finish the last page of THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, you won't be able to resist the urge to more thoroughly acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with EMMA, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, NORTHANGER ABBEY, MANSFIELD PARK and PERSUASION. You might even have a better appreciation for them having read this book first.
In 1826, Sir Walter Scott said about the late Jane Austen, "That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with…. The exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me."
What was denied Sir Walter Scott flows effortlessly through Karen Joy Fowler's pen. THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is a pleasure to read. It is a fun, cleverly crafted, witty and thoroughly modern tale that shows us exactly why Austen's novels retain their timeless appeal. Like Austen, Fowler paints the everyday in such a way that makes it easily recognizable, capturing the subtleties of social interaction, family dynamics, the complexities of friendship, the nuances of courtship and the fragility of life.
Included in the book is a reading group guide with a twist --- each of the six characters has contributed "questions for discussion." One of Sylvia's questions asks, "Is a good book better the second time around?" I'll know the answer as soon as I finish reading THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB … again.
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on January 22, 2011
The Jane Austen Book Club