I picked up a copy of The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler, mainly due to my affection for Jane Austen’s own works. I read most of Austen’s oeuvre while in college, and though I admit that her works can seem a bit one-note if read closely together, I truly enjoyed all of them. Like most Austen fans, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite, hands down. I watch the movie versions on a fairly regular basis, to cheer myself up, indulge my inner mushy romantic, and just enjoy the language and culture of the era.
Since I had picked up Fowler’s novel on such a whim, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’ve read other Austen-based books, and they’re all over the spectrum — some excellent (Pamela Aiden’s These Three Remain, the concluding novel of the Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy), and some not so great (Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy). This book, however, didn’t really fit the mold of the other books I had read, and this was to its benefit. In The Jane Austen Book Club, Jane Austen and her novels are a vehicle, more than anything else. The novel is about five women and one man who come together once a month to discuss Jane Austen’s novels. They meet once a month, and the novel is broken into sections according to the month, current novel, and host or hostess of the meeting at the time. Through this structure, Fowler manages to both continue the storyline of the whole group, while still focusing in turns on the individuals and their life stories.
The characters — Jocelyn, Bernadette, Prudie, Sylvia, Allegra, and Grigg — are of differing ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles. They’re brought together by their common affinity for Austen, though each has their own distinct views on her work. Fowler presents the stories in an interesting way; the narration is first-person plural, using “we” and “us”, but never “I” outside of the characters’ dialogue. It’s never clear who the narrator is, or even if they’re one of the characters at all. Fowler occasionally takes us inside the mind of the characters, but typically only during the section in which they are hosting the book club meeting. She does an excellent job of sharing stories from the various perspectives, highlighting what each character knows versus where they’re guessing to try and fill in the blanks. It’s actually very Austen-like, as it occasionally results in the same sort of comedy of manners and social interactions that Austen herself was so skilled at portraying.
Fowler is fully aware of the Austenian archetypes, and refers to them without hesitation. It gets somewhat meta-literary at times, but avid readers probably won’t mind this, as it gives them something to bond with the characters over. This is a good thing, as at the beginning of the novel I was not a fan in the least of several of the women, and had no opinion at all of the lone man in the group. This changed over the course of the book, thank goodness. Fowler presents the characters flaws-forward, delving through both their memories as well as their current lives in a series of interwoven vignettes. Though initially off-putting, I found myself warming to the characters as I saw them more and more through each others’ eyes. Whether intentional or not, Fowler seems to be reminding the reader that, while we may have biases and prejudices that color our interactions with those around us, we tend to be most harsh in judgement of ourselves.
Much of the novel, like Austen’s works, is a character study. The unspoken rules of book club meetings, friendship, and relationships, are a major theme, as the characters consider their own lives through the lens of whichever of Austen’s novels they happen to be reading that month. My favorite scene comes late in the book; all of the women and men, both major and minor characters alike, converge at a fund-raiser for the Sacramento Public Library. This is where manners begin to fray and people begin to let their true colors fly, similarly to many of the ball scenes in Austen’s novels. Prudie and Bernadette provide much of the humor, and Bernadette becomes my official favorite character of the novel. Much of their fun is had at the expense of a somewhat self-important author, who the ladies seem to relish repeatedly putting in his place. Fowler slips in an indication that the writer may have in fact gotten the last laugh, however.
This was a quick read, only about 250 pages. I enjoyed it, but it definitely wouldn’t be for everyone. Fans of Austen will likely enjoy this book, as it not only mirrors her novels but also discusses her life and work at length. I can’t imagine, though, that someone who was not a fan of her would appreciate Fowler’s novel. It’s not quite chick lit (a term and genre I typically loathe), but it comes rather close at times. The true measure of my liking of this book will be next time I purge my bookshelf to make room for new material. Will this book maintain its place, or will I trade it in at Bookman’s for something new? As of right now, I really can’t say. Until then, however, it’s got a positive position on my bookshelf.