Each of us has a private Austen.
Jocelyn's Austen wrote wonderful novels about love and courtship, but never married. The book club was Jocelyn's idea and she hand-picked the members. She had more ideas in one morning than the rest of us had in a week, and more energy, too. We would do the six novels in six months, she told us, spring to autumn, which had nice metaphorical implications, but was also convenient, it being that time of year now anyway.
It was essential to reintroduce Austen into your life regularly, Jocelyn said, let her look around. We suspected a hidden agenda, but who would put Jane Austen to an evil purpose?
Bernadette's Austen was a comic genius. Her characters, her dialogue remained genuinely funny, not like Shakespeare's jokes, which amused you only because they were Shakespeare's and you owed him that.
Bernadette was our oldest member, just rounding the bend of sixty-seven. She'd recently announced that she was, officially, letting herself go. "I just don't look in the mirror anymore," she'd told us. "Nothing could be simpler. I wish I'd thought of it years ago.
"Like a vampire," she added, and when she put it that way, we wondered how it was that vampires always managed to look so dapper. It seemed that more of them should look like Bernadette.
Once Prudie had seen Bernadette in the supermarket in her bedroom slippers, her hair sticking up from her forehead as if she hadn't even combed it. She was buying frozen edamame and capers and other items that couldn't have been immediately needed.
Bernadette's favorite book was Pride and Prejudice; she'd told Jocelyn that it was probably everyone's favorite. She recommended starting with it. But Sylvia's husband of thirty-two years had just asked for a divorce, and Jocelyn would not subject her, the news so recent and tender, to the dishy Mr. Darcy. "We'll start with Emma," Jocelyn had answered. "Because no one has ever read it and wished to be married."
Jocelyn met Sylvia when they were both eleven years old; they were in their early fifties now. Sylvia's Austen was a daughter, a sister, an aunt. Sylvia's Austen wrote her books in a busy sitting room, read them aloud to her family, yet remained an acute and nonpartisan observer of people. Sylvia's Austen could love and be loved, but it didn't cloud her vision, blunt her judgment.
It was possible that Sylvia was the whole reason for the book club, that Jocelyn wished only to keep her occupied during a difficult time. That would be like Jocelyn. Sylvia was her oldest and closest friend.
Wasn't it Kipling who said, "Nothing like Jane when you're in a tight spot?" Or something very like that?
"I think we should be all women," Bernadette suggested next. "The dynamic changes with men. They pontificate rather than communicate. They talk more than their share."
Jocelyn opened her mouth.
"No one can get a word in," Bernadette warned her. "Women are too tentative to interrupt, no matter how long someone has gone on."
Jocelyn cleared her throat.
"Besides, men don't do book clubs," Bernadette said. "They see reading as a solitary pleasure. When they read at all."
Jocelyn closed her mouth.
Yet the very next person she asked was Grigg, whom we none of us knew. Grigg was a neat, dark-haired man in his mid forties. The first thing you noticed about him was his eyelashes, which were very long and thick. We imagined a lifetime of aunts regretting the waste of those lashes in the face of a boy.
We'd all known Jocelyn long enough to wonder whom Grigg was intended for. Grigg was too young for some of us, too old for the rest. His inclusion in the club was mystifying.
Those of us who'd known Jocelyn longest had survived multiple setups. She'd introduced Sylvia to her future husband while they were all still in high school and been maid of honor at the wedding three years later. This early success had given her a taste for blood; she'd never recovered. Sylvia and Daniel. Daniel and Sylvia. Thirty-plus years of satisfaction, though it was, of course, harder to take pleasure in that just now.
Jocelyn had never been married herself, so she had ample time for all sorts of hobbies.
She'd spent fully six months producing young men for Sylvia's daughter, Allegra, when Allegra turned nineteen. Now Allegra was thirty, and the fifth person asked to join our book club. Allegra's Austen wrote about the impact of financial need on the intimate lives of women. If she'd worked in a bookstore, Allegra would have shelved Austen in the horror section.
Allegra got short, expensive haircuts and wore cheap, sexy shoes, but neither of those would have made any of us think twice if she hadn't also, on occasions too numerous to count, referred to herself as a lesbian. Jocelyn's inability to see what had never been hidden eventually became offensive and Sylvia took her aside and asked why she was having so much trouble getting it. Jocelyn was mortified.
She switched to suitable young women. Jocelyn ran a kennel and bred Rhodesian Ridgebacks. The dog world was, as it happily turned out, awash in suitable young women.
Prudie was the youngest of us at twenty-eight. Her favorite novel was Persuasion, the last completed and the most somber. Prudie's was the Austen 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. Prudie's was the Austen who died, possibly of Hodgkin's disease, when she was only forty-one years old.
Prudie would have liked it if we'd occasionally acknowledged the fact that she'd won her invitation as a genuine Austen devotee, unlike Allegra who was really only there because of her mother. Not that Allegra wouldn't have some valuable insights; Prudie was eager to hear them. Always good to know what the lesbians were thinking about love and marriage.
Prudie had a dramatic face, deep-set eyes, white, white skin and shadowed cheeks. A tiny mouth and lips that almost disappeared when she smiled, like the Cheshire cat, only opposite. She taught French at the high school and was the only one of us currently married, unless you counted Sylvia, who soon wouldn't be. Or maybe Grigg -- we didn't know about Grigg -- but why would Jocelyn have invited him if he was married?
None of us knew who Grigg's Austen was.
The six of us -- Jocelyn, Bernadette, Sylvia, Allegra, Prudie, and Grigg -- made up the full roster of the Central Valley/River City All-Jane-Austen-All-the-Time book club. The first time we met was at Jocelyn's house.
Excerpted from THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB © Copyright 2004 by Karen Joy Fowler. Reprinted with permission by Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.
The Jane Austen Book Club
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: A Marian Wood Book/Putnam
- ISBN-10: 0399151613
- ISBN-13: 9780399151613