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The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

By Caroline | Books | December 30, 2009 |

By Caroline | Books | December 30, 2009 |

In my nerdy travels I’ve never read Jane Austen, although her books seep into our consciousness from nearly every angle, the most obvious being repeated and high-quality movie versions. My very favorite of these is Ang Lee’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Because wow. Unfortunately I hold a serious grudge against the Brontes that accidentally overflowed into Austen, and someday hope to get over it like a grownup and read at least one of her books.

The Jane Austen Book Club is a lovely book, classy and smart, full of interesting female characters. Author Karen Joy Fowler opens with a short description of the version of Austen each person in the book club hopes to read (a romantic? an independent spirit? a means by which to make sense?), and she peppers their conversations in the book with legitimate literary opinions. The most wonderful and largely unsung qualities of this book is that its characters choose to read challenging literature in their spare time. They have jobs and other interests and decide that it is worthwhile to read Austen for fun.

Their reading group has six members, five women and one man, and the man is considered, not mocked, as an outsider both in a group of women and in the world of Austen. An unseen collective narrator makes asides about the man’s copy of Austen’s “collected novels,” and how it is, sniff, pedestrian. For anyone who’s ever known or been a book snob (FULL DISCLOSURE: GUILTY OF BOTH), this should be mildly embarrassing to see in print. And I imagine that’s the point. There is also a section in which the club attends a charity event where they’re seated with a contemporary writer, and the way Fowler contrasts the mystery writer with each club member’s attitude toward Austen, and books in general, really sings.

I wished the book was longer, which is a good sign. I also bent over the corners of half a dozen pages, another good sign.

One of the women, Sylvia, is recently divorced and has a 30-year-old daughter, Allegra. Her thoughts make up my favorite moment in the book:

Sylvia thought how all parents wanted an impossible life for their children — happy beginning, happy middle, happy ending. No plot of any kind. What uninteresting people would result if parents got their way. Allegra had always been plenty interesting enough. Time for her to be happy.

The other night, Nathan and I talked about the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” and why it succeeds — the characters are allowed to have unhappy beginnings, middles, or endings, and their stories breathe and flex. Fowler’s characters do the same, simultaneously having unhealthy relationships and judging other people’s, making poor decisions and commenting on those around them. I identified with their attitudes and warmed when those attitudes were challenged and reformed.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Caroline’s reviews, check out her blog, Of a Golden Age.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.