A California comedy of manners
Anyone who has ever been part of a book club knows that it's not just about the books. It's about the wine and cheese and desserts and endless digressions. Sure the books are important, the glue that binds the thing together, but peel the metaphorical cover back and many stories unfold. That's because a book club is also about the people, their lives both inside and outside the group. Karen Joy Fowler, an expert observer of relationships, knows this. And in The Jane Austen Book Club, she invites readers into the living rooms—and into the lives—of her colorful characters.
There's the energetic Jocelyn, a single, middle-aged dog breeder and creator of the Jane Austen book club. ("It was essential to reintroduce Austen into your life regularly, let her look around," she says.) There is Jocelyn's best friend, Sylvia, recently separated from her husband of 30-plus years; Allegra, Sylvia's daughter, a lesbian, chic, beautiful and adventurous ("Always good to know what the lesbians were thinking about love and marriage," remarks one member); Prudie, the youngest at 20-something, married and a high school French teacher who annoys the others by lapsing into français; Bernadette, who, at the age of 67 "recently announced that she was, officially, letting herself go"; and finally, there is the token man, the enigmatic Grigg, who bravely joins the group having never read Austen.
When the novel begins, the book club is meeting for the first time at Jocelyn's house, in California's Central Valley, to discuss Emma. This quirky group meets over six months to discuss Austen's novels, one by one, and, of course, ends up discussing much more.
During a morning call to North Carolina where Fowler, a California resident, is writer-in-residence at a small college, the author's voice has a warmth suited to her Southern surroundings. The obvious question, of course, is why Austen? What makes this 19th-century mannerist still compelling today?
"I've always loved Austen. I read her books over and over again," Fowler says. "The reasons I've been a big fan have changed pretty dramatically over the years. When I first read her I just responded to the romance and the happy endings, and it took me several readings and several years of my own life to realize that they're not actually all that romantic and that a lot of the happy endings are problematic."
The idea for the novel came to Fowler when she attended a friend's book signing and saw a sign that read "The Jane Austen Book Club." She assumed that it was a novel, and upon realizing it was, in fact, a book club, felt disappointed. Being the enterprising sort, she decided to write the book herself. (So much for her claim that she "completely lacks self-discipline.")
Don't, however, let the title intimidate you. Even if that copy of Pride and Prejudice hasn't left your bookshelf since college, you'll still find it easy to slip into the lives of Fowler's characters. "I hope that it is very accessible for those who haven't read her at all or haven't read her recently." It is. Though Austen's novels themselves obviously play a key role in Fowler's book and provide much of the subtext, Fowler's characters are the heart and soul of the story. Her favorite character is the group's oldest member, Bernadette. Not at first sight your typical wise woman, she comes to occupy a special place in the club. She's by far the most amusing of the bunch, and proves the point, so often made in Austen's work, that appearances can be deceiving, and first impressions aren't always accurate.
Austen's presence resonates throughout the novel. There are the awkward dances of courtship, the social gaffes and comedic misunderstandings; there is also irony and humor. (Austenites will immediately recognize a library fundraiser as the modern day equivalent of an English formal ball.) Also like Austen, Fowler possesses a genuine affection for her characters and an understanding of their complexity.
Fowler says laughingly, "One of the things I love about Austen is that her work is so layered and complex that she just gets better every time I look at her. The smarter I get, the smarter she looks." The same could be said for Fowler's novel. The plot may seem pretty straightforward, but beneath the surface, love affairs blossom, friendships hang in the balance, and grief coexists with joy. In other words, life happens.
So if, as the narrator believes, we all have "a private Austen," who is Fowler's? She says her Austen is "very, very different than when I first read her. But the more I've become a writer and the more I think about writing and I look at books in terms of how they're put together, the more I'm interested in her as a writer. One of the things that appeals to me now is the kind of incredible cheerfulness with which she appears to have collected all the criticism of her friends and relatives of the middle books. She's got lists of people's responses, and some of them are just withering. But she seems to have enjoyed that and enjoyed the fact that people were reading her." It is in this spirit that Fowler includes more than 20 pages of criticism, contemporary and from Austen's day, in the back of the book, along with clever, tongue-in-cheek "Questions for Discussion" posed by the characters themselves.
At present, Fowler is busy teaching and working on another novel, which she's been kicking around for a couple of years. She's still at the "too afraid to talk about it stage," but does confide that it has a chimpanzee in it. From Austen to apes—if anyone can make the transition, Fowler can. The author of Sister Noon (a PEN/Faulkner finalist), she also writes historical and speculative fiction.
Though Fowler takes Austen as her inspiration, she clearly possesses her own unique voice and gift for storytelling. She shares Austen's keen eye for the subtle dynamics at play in relationships, and she proves Austen's relevance even now. So don't be afraid to pluck that old Austen paperback from the shelf. Just make sure you've got The Jane Austen Book Club in hand, too.
Katherine H. Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.