Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Jane Austen Book Club

The front pages of Karen Joy Fowler's novel The Jane Austen Book Club feature blurbs that amount to: "no, really, it's better than it sounds." And that much is true.

Simply described, this is a novel organized around discussions of Austen's novels, with the backstories of five women and one man responding to the novels' themes and the characters themselves all moving towards coupledom. I can imagine a version of that simply described novel that would be truly painful to read, and, indeed, Fowler's book is better than that.

Each of the characters finds a different, hastily sketched route into sympathy. Prudie, a married high school French teacher, grew up with a mother who fabricated memories for events she couldn't afford for her mother. Jocelyn, who arranged the reading group, has familiar memories of how being an attractive young woman can become terribly isolating. Grigg, the only man of the group, is ambiguously sexual, used to being controlled by women, and identified with science fiction fandom. Bernadette, the oldest member of the group, has the most innocent voice for her wild memories, the least social status during the novel, and the most wish-fulfilling conclusion. Allegra is a beautiful, adrenaline-junkie lesbian; she has recently split up with her lover and uses the book-group discussions to snipe at love. Last, there is Allegra's mother Sylvia, Jocelyn's good friend from childhood, a Latina Catholic who has also recently separated from her husband.

I may have to read the book again to figure out if there's much behind the occasional clever line and the sympathetically sketched characters. Then again, the book is due back at the library soon, and I'm not so very curious. Still: this was not a stupid book. That counts for something.


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