Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club

If you’ve ever gathered at a friend’s house to talk about a novel, relished the conversation, feasted on the food, even made a wise crack about a comment you found inane, you’ll delight in Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club.
In the eponymous book group, one man and five women meet once a month to discuss one of Jane Austen’s six novels. Jocelyn, who leads the discussion of Emma, is a middle-aged dog breeder who enjoys playing matchmaker to her best friend, Sylvia. As in the book she cherishes so much, there’s a Mr. Knightley somewhere for Jocelyn, if only she opens herself up to a twenty-first century twist. Allegra, who chooses Sense and Sensibility, is a talented jewelry designer on the rebound from a troubled relationship with her gay partner. Prudie is a high school French teacher who is fond of quoting en francais. She picks Mansfield Park for discussion. Grigg (yes, with an ‘i’) is a recently laid-off tech worker and sci-fi fanatic. “The first thing you noticed about him was his eyelashes, which were very long and thick. We imagined a lifetime of aunts regretting the waste of those lashes in the face of a boy.” Grigg has started reading Jane Austen at the suggestion of Jocelyn, and his selection is Northanger Abbey. Then there’s Bernadette, the lovable, older member of the club, who seems constantly distracted and rambling but is altogether perceptive. She discusses Pride and Prejudice. And lastly, there’s Sylvia, best friend to Jocelyn, mother of Allegra, and recently separated from Daniel. She picks Persuasion.
Fowler’s humor and her sense of irony come through in scene after scene. When Grigg’s dad, worried about the boy’s closeness to his sisters, shows him a magazine with a scantily clad woman on the cover, Grigg is more fascinated by the spider that holds the bra in place. When Allegra talks about her lover’s ease at making up a story about a parachuting accident, we are told that Allegra was impressed because “Anyone who could lie as effortlessly as Corinne was someone to keep on the right side of. You would want her lies told for and not to you.” But the lies do indeed turn out to be told to poor Allegra.
As in Austen’s novels, there are plenty of break-ups and hook-ups, but since Fowler’s book is set in modern-day California, there are quite a few refreshing twists to the tale. And, as in Austen’s novels, the political world around the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club seems to have little bearing on their lives. Witness how the events of September 11 are referred to: “A year earlier, Dean could have accompanied [Prudie] to the gate, held her hand while she waited. Now there was no point in even going in. ”
Fowler’s sense of characterization works well with the female members of the club, though it seems to come a little short with Grigg. He never quite comes into a voice fully his own. Even the chapter that revolves around his discussion of Northanger Abbey is told largely from the point of view of the other women, as though he were a spectator.
The novel’s structure (one chapter for each discussion of an Austen novel) is rather clever. Soon, however, structure seems to get in the way. After the epilogue, there’s a brief synopsis of all six of Austen’s novels; a section on Austen’s family’s reactions to her work; chronologically sorted comments on Austen by everyone from Charlotte Bronte to Vladimir Nabokov; and mock book club questions written by the characters themselves (the meta book club.) If this sounds like a lot, maybe it is.
Despite this, the book has much to recommend it. It’s a great take on the culture of book groups, an homage to Austen, an engaging story, and I enjoyed it tremendously.