The last time I picked up a modern fiction book, I assumed I’d like it, and was disappointed. This time, with The Jane Austen Book Club, I assumed I wouldn’t like it, and ended up loving it. Go figure. I picked this book up primarily because I wanted to know what Karen Joy Fowler’s writing style was like. I wanted to get insight into why she chose me as a finalist in the Whiskey Island contest. I didn’t expect for this to be enjoyable, just instructional. I was sucked in almost immediately, not in the way that’s so seductive that you can’t put the book down for 8 hours until it’s read, but seductive enough to keep me reading steadily over a couple days, and thinking about the book, picking at it, deciphering it, in the hours not reading. A delicate and delightful balance not often achieved in modern writing. Then again, I’d say this book has a lot of things in it that aren’t normally achieved in modern fiction/lit. Most notably, it has layers. Layers and layers and layers. I like layers.
The plot is fairly simple: Six characters meet each month for six months to read the six Jane Austen novels. We have Jocelyn, who starts the club. She’s in her early fifties, never married, loves dogs (and breeds/shows them), and loves matchmaking (for other people only); she’s neat and orderly, the sort of person who dusts her lightbulbs regularly. Next, there’s Sylvia, Jocelyn’s best friend since childhood, also early fifties, who has been married for 32 years to her high school sweetheart, who just asked for a divorce. Sylvia loves love and romance but is also a very reserved person who doesn’t show her feelings easily. Her daughter, Allegra, is the third member of the group. Allegra is a thirty-year-old jewelry/craft maker with an explosive way of approaching life. She loves adventure (think skydiving) and throughout the book is dealing with the terrible betrayal of her longtime girlfriend. Bernadette (member #4) is in her mid-to-late sixties, has been married/divorced several times, is extremely friendly, always wants to make everyone feel loved and worth something, and is very talkative but without direction to her speech. At the beginning of this book, she’s decided never to look in a mirror again. Once she fixes her glasses with tape and paperclips. Prudie is the fifth member. She’s the youngest, at twenty-eight, and teaches French at the high school. She’s married to a man she worries will eventually get tired of her, though she never phrases it to herself that way. Prudie’s character cracks me up. She is chiseled in looks and personality, she’s extremely frightened of the world and never admits it to herself, instead cloaks herself in “quiet confidence.” She often throws French into her conversations with people, even though they know no French, especially when she’s making important points. A lot of awkward pauses follow Prudie’s speeches. Last, we have Grigg, in his early forties, a younger brother to three girls whose parents think he’s more “girlie” (sensitive) than his sisters. He’s a real big sci-fi geek and in love with Jocelyn, who he met a year before at a hotel that had two conferences going on – a comicon of some sort and a dog show rally of some sort. Jocelyn invites him to the book club to try to set him up with Sylvia, to distract Sylvia from her impending divorce.
Okay, so those are the players. What caught my attention right away was that the narrator was first person, though not from any of the mentioned characters’ points of view, as if there was an invisible, non-existent person at the book club. I’ll come back to this in a moment. The book consists of a prologue, six chapters (one for each book/character), and an epilogue. In each chapter, the character hosting the book club (which doesn’t always even happen in the chapter, indeed, in the book – some are just skipped) is opened up for the reader. In the first chapter, for example, Jocelyn hosts for the book Emma, and we get sections about the club discussions interspersed with sections about Jocelyn’s life. Not all the chapters are set up identically. Like I said, this book is very layered, and I have a feeling that if I worked harder, I could identify how each chapter’s setup coordinates with the personality of the character it portrays/represents. Some have more of the character’s history, some have more of their present, etc. In Prudie’s section, I’m pretty sure the first-person pov disappears altogether, so that suddenly we’re in third person for however many pages. In Bernadette’s, her personal parts of the chapter are done completely in first person, as if Bernadette herself is the narrator. At first I thought this was indicative of the whole book, that maybe Bernadette was the narrator but referring to herself in third person, but after reading the whole chapter, I was forced to conclude that I was probably wrong on that point.
I won’t give away any of the things that happen to each club member (does Grigg end up with Jocelyn? with Sylvia? What’s up with Prudie’s mother?). Everything is so ordinary and yet so fascinating (remind anyone of Austen herself?). I’ve only read one Austen book, Persuasion, so far, and seen the movies for S&S and P&P, but I’m sure I would catch more of the parallels Ms. Fowler put in there if I had read more. In the Persuasion chapter, for example, a couple members of the group have a picnic at the beach, and Allegra makes a wide jump on a rock-climbing wall and falls. For those who have read Persuasion, these two things will be familiar. I’m sure there are little points like that in all the chapters – I’m just not well-read enough to know them. It sure makes me want to read more Austen, though. I’m such a dork, but I mark The Jane Austen Book Club as a good book because I’d be more than willing to reread it to find more of the hidden pieces, symbols, etc.
This book goes beyond its epilogue. There’s a reader’s guide which has brief descriptions of each Austen book, a collection of impressions Austen gathered from friends/family about several of her books, and a collection of praise, critique, and criticism of Austen from the time she was living to present day. It’s hilarious to see how strongly people feel one way or another, and also to see how opinions and critiques change over time. Mark Twain apparently hated Austen (he says, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”), and Nabokov is as ever-flowing in his critiques as in his novels. And then after all the pages of this, there are discussion questions. Of course, they aren’t normal discussion questions. They are given, three each, by the characters themselves, and are absolutely hilarious. Each question portrays the asker’s personality and has a slight ironic tone as they ask about Fowler or about The Jane Austen Book Club itself. They appear almost-professional at times, but give themselves away, as flawed as the asker him/herself is. (#2 (Prudie): Il est plus honteux de se defier de ses amis, que d’en etre trompe. Agree or disagree?)
My only complaint with this book is something that seems to be a symptom of modern writing. Why, why, does the narrator – normally so composed, dignified, and intelligent – have to throw in a smattering of profanity for no reason every once in awhile? It’s not that I mind profanity – Catch-22 rolls off my back without me even noticing, you know? And there are a couple places where a character uses profanity and it makes sense and is appropriate – where it is consistent with that character. It flows and doesn’t detract from the story. But when this narrator does it, it makes me stop and roll my eyes and think that Ms. Fowler put it in simply to prove that she’s “contemporary.” I mean really, what’s the point of lowering yourself to a childlike “heheheh I said a bad word” mentality 10-15 times in a book? You have a better vocab than that! It’s like people have come to think that “shit” is the actual word for the bodily function, so that every time you want to make a comment on that function (which in itself is very childish and ridiculous), you have to use that word, no matter how it contrasts your normally eloquent prose. It bothers me. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen too often in this book.
But beyond that one point, this book is a real keeper. Lots of dimension, absolutely hilarious in that mild-ironic way. Ms. Fowler really captures in modern times a lot of what Jane Austen did in olden times, by way of societal observation. She masters what I know would be too difficult for me to master – making each chapter subtly coordinate with an Austen book (in style and event) and also with a character’s personality, and probably more than that too, if I knew the book better. My copy belongs to the library and I have to turn it in, but I think this one’s going on the list of “want to buy” and there hasn’t been a book to do that in a long time. I’m impressed and delighted to find something so captivating in modern lit.