The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler has been sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, for longer than I’d care to admit. I was curious about it from the beginning, as it came out within a year or so of my own love affair with Austen hitting it’s full stride. I purchased the book when it came out in paperback, probably sometime in 2005, and promptly relegated it to the “I’ll get there sooner or later” pile. Well, it turned out to be later rather than sooner. I watched the movie earlier this year (I know it’s blasphemous to see a movie before you’ve read the book, particularly when you’ve owned the book for ages), and became interested in it all over again. It took a few months, but I finally got it off the shelf, and out of my to-be-read pile. And I read it. And I liked it.
Six very different people (five women, one man, and all neurotic in their own way) begin a book club devoted to reading the six major novels of Jane Austen. For some, Austen is an old friend. For others, she is a new experience. At the beginning of the novel, there is a good deal of actual discussion of Austen’s works, intertwined with the life stories of the group members. However, by the time they meet to discuss the final novel, Persuasion, discussion of Austen’s work has completely taken a backseat to the characters’ stories (in two months, the months devoted to Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice, we don’t even see the characters at their usual monthly meeting). We learn what brought Allegra, Bernadette, Grigg, Jocelyn, Prudie, and Sylvia to their respective points in life, and, at the end, Fowler gives them a little direction for the future. Following the conclusion of the Persuasion discussion, they meet once more to touch base, only to realize that no other author will provide the magic that Austen has provided for them, and they continue on their merry way.
I actually didn’t enjoy the book as much as I expected to. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy, but I finished it feeling a little let down. I’ve come to realize that I’m a very character-driven reader. I can overlook plot holes in novels provided the characters are well-done. And in a novel like this, characters are almost more important to the success of the book than plot. Each of the characters had their moments, and in theory, they’re well-designed. But there was nothing there to really endear any of them to me. Allegra and Prudie were both annoying and self-centered (designed, it seems, to illustrate how much younger than the others they were). Sylvia, Jocelyn and Bernadette were all kind of bland (Bernadette, in particular, could have been so much more interesting if only Fowler had given her a little bit of sass. Instead, Allegra got all the sass, but it was wasted on her because of how self-centered she was). Really, Grigg was the only one I didn’t regard with complete and total indifference, and that’s because I felt sorry for him. He opened himself up for a new experience, and embraced it, and the others regarded his efforts with a bemused condescencion. It seemed to get better as the novel went on, but even at the end, Fowler takes great pains to point out that “Grigg didn’t get it.” Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But I felt myself becoming indignant on his behalf throughout the novel.
I didn’t hate the characters. I just felt that Fowler was trying so hard to make them normal, she actually made them too ordinary.
I do have to commend Fowler for her use of the Sacramento area as the setting for the novel. So often, books are set in the major cities (ie, L.A. and San Francisco) or in rural areas. But Sacramento has a kind of perfect “everytown” feeling that really works for this novel. And on a personal note, it was kind of neat to read a novel, see the author mention a place or peculiarity, and picture it perfectly (I’ve lived in the Sacramento area for the last twelve years).
So overall, I liked the book, but I don’t think it merited the praise it received from some critics. It was a solid effort, and I wouldn’t be opposed to reading more from her in the future. But I won’t be moving her other works to the “must read now” pile, either.
Rating: 3 stars
Publisher, ISBN: Plume Books, 0452286530
888 Category: Austen Addiction