The Jane Austen Book Club By Karen Joy Fowler

The Jane Austen Book Club By Karen Joy Fowler

"We have tried to get "Self-control," but in vain. I should like to know what her estimate is, but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever, and of finding my own story and my own people all forestalled." A letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen April 30, 1811
We approached The Jane Austen Book Club with some trepidation, fearing, like Jane, to find a clever novel too clever: that showy sort of cleverness that is vulgarly self-congratulatory, as if drawing the reader's attention to itself and away from the story. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded; The Jane Austen Book Club is a delightful comedy of manners that holds many joys for readers and many more joys for Janeites. The plot is nonlinear, but with a story arc that brings the disparate sections together. Each chapter includes a discussion of one of Jane Austen's novels and a month in the lives of the members of the club, five women and one man. Each chapter also tells the story of the leader of that particular book's discussion, with the entire chapter, past and present, echoing the original novel under discussion in interlocking twists of narration, so subtly that even the well-read Janeite can miss the references if she is not careful. The amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park become a high school musical; the Upper Rooms in Bath morph into a science fiction convention; and Bingley's ball becomes a fundraiser dinner dance. The members of the group adapt their roles to fit each novel, as well. They do not adhere slavishly to their assigned doppelganger, a conceit that is often annoying in Austen imitations. In each narrative they play a different role, but there is always an echo of the established character—sometimes the hero, sometimes the heroine, sometimes both hero and heroine, no small feat. The resolution of the romantic entanglements of the characters will be little surprising to the Janeite that is paying attention, though Jane’s novels are sometimes reflected in surprising and unexpected ways, like meeting an old friend coming around a corner. The authoress' prejudices shine through—clearly she is no fan of Sense and Sensibility—but in general she displays a deep knowledge of and affection for Jane Austen’s works as well as a sharp insight into human interaction. We are privileged to get inside each of the main characters’ heads, and when necessary, we observe the action through the eyes of a first person plural narrator; despite the noneditorial “we,” one suspects that the point of view really shifts between the various members of the club. It is a convention that can be perceived as overly precious, but we found it charming and very like the narrative voice of Jane Austen’s novels, drawing the reader into the circle of the characters who populate it. We (in the editorial sense) spent a week delightfully immersed in Ms. Fowler’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s world, reminded once again why we (in the sense of “all Janeites”) still read Jane Austen’s novels two centuries after they were written: because they speak to the universal themes that are as relevant and recognizable in the 21st century as they were in the 19th; because a heroine—or a hero—does not have to be a “picture of perfection” to be likeable; and because everyone loves a happy ending. Each of us has a private Austen, Ms. Fowler tells us in the first line of the novel. We found this statement to have a great deal of truth to it, and further submit that perhaps each of us has her own, internal Jane Austen character—or several—as well.   The Jane Austen Book Club Hardcover: 288 pages (May 2004) Publisher: Marian Wood Book ISBN: 0399151613 List Price: £13.04/$23.95

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Margaret C. Sullivan is the webmistress of Tilneys and Trapdoors. Her Jane Austen is a literary genius with a wicked, irrepressible sense of humor, who has no objection to marriage but is quite content to remain single

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