[BOOK REVIEW]Revelations in discussing a beloved authorTo Jane Austen buffs like myself, books by the author or dealing with her masterpieces or modern sequels are bound to be of keen interest because aficionados cannot get enough of the author.
So it was with no hesitation that I picked up Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club,” published last year. The first line of the book is as eye-catching and soul-defining as Austen’s work itself. It reads, “Each of us has a private Austen.”
Set in modern day, sunny California, the book tells the story of five women and one man who get together every month to discuss six Austen novels. The characters, ranging in age from their 20s to late 60s, debate about the marriage of Marianne to Colonel Brandon in “Emma,” or what happens to the two youngest Bennet girls in “Pride and Prejudice.”
But don’t be fooled by the title into thinking that this is a compilation of critiques of Austen’s novels. Her work provides the spice, but the ultimate flavor lies in the past and present situations of the six characters. Ms. Fowler’s storytelling carries wit and sly observations, and the plot shifts constantly from the present day to past scenes from the characters’ lives.
In the process of the contemplation of Austen’s novels, the six characters reveal their personalities and their innermost selves. For each of the characters, Austen carries a different meaning. To Jocelyn, Austen wrote wonderful novels about love and relationships but remained unmarried, while to Bernadette, Austen “was a comic genius.” For Prudie, Austen’s books “change every time you read them.”
Members of the club do not disclose academically revealing truths or observations about Austen’s work. Some of the characters’ comments appear petty, but they are funny and insightful observations into human relationships and nature. And all of the members contribute to the club through their comic and affecting experiences and perspectives.
The characters do provide food for thought for the readers (and those who have perused Austen’s books) by presenting a list of “questions for discussion” to the readers.
The narrator of the book, while not one of the six characters of the novel, gives voyeuristic descriptions of the unfolding discussions and digressions to the past. The narrator speaks in the first person plural, saying, “We sat in a circle on Jocelyn’s screened porch at dusk...”
One tedious aspect of the novel is that the author dedicates an entire chapter to quotations from Austen’s family, friends and critics.
Nevertheless, Austenites will revel in the book, while readers who have never picked up an Austen novel will become curious about her work and will surely come to understand what everyone is talking about.
The Jane Austen Book Club
By Karen Joy Fowler
Putnam, 288 pages
$16.29 on Amazon.com
by Choi Jie-ho