The Jane Austen Book Club (2004)

by Karen Joy Fowler

Oddly enough, The Jane Austen Book Club might be most enjoyed by people who don't consider themselves "Janeites." A rabid Austen fan is likely to pick up the book expecting lots of perceptive discussion and perhaps new insights into Austen's novels, but, despite the title, the meetings of the "Central Valley/River City [California] all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club" aren't the focus. What Fowler has written is a contemporary novel with echoes of Austen in its attention to the love lives of the characters and its ironic tone.

Austen's six novels are a convenient device on which Fowler hangs her six chapters — one for each member of the book group. They are Sylvia, whose husband has recently left her for a younger woman; their risk-loving daughter Allegra, a lesbian estranged from her lover; Sylvia's never-married best friend, Jocelyn, whose affection is lavished on her dogs; many-times-divorced Bernadette, relievedly letting herself go at 67; young Prudie, whose husband doesn't share her intellectual pretensions; and Grigg, the lone male, middle-aged and unmarried. Their stories, which really are the heart of the book, have loose links to Austen's plotlines. That might heighten the enjoyment for those looking for connections to Jane, but acquaintance with Austen's novels isn't a prerequisite.

Which one will Grigg end up with? You know that Fowler isn't going to leave any of her main characters unpaired any more than Austen would. From the pen of Austen, however, happy-ending romance became serious literature. Fowler's takeoff, though a pleasant enough read, doesn't achieve such substance. For a real Jane Austen experience, it's best to go to the source.



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