The Jane Austen Book Club -- Karen Joy Fowler

Friday, July 13, 2007

Jane Austen's beloved novel Pride and Prejudice contains one of the most famous opening lines ever written: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." From this sentence on, the reader knows what to expect from this novel -- romance, class issues, and some of the wittiest writing in the 19th century canon. In recent years, many writers have attempted to capitalize on the unending popularity of Austen's fiction, writing sequels that continue the stories of the characters, speculating about Austen's own life, or reworking her plots with new settings and characters. One of these novels, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, also attempts to imitate Austen's pithy opening sentence with an attention-grabber of its own.

"Each of us has a private Austen," begins The Jane Austen Book Club. Whether or not this is true, it paves the way for a charming premise for a novel: each of the six members of a book club will take responsibility for leading the group down the primrose path of one of Austen's six novels -- each book, of course, providing insight into the real (and parallel) lives of the book club members to parallel the literary lives of Catherine, Elinor, Fanny, Elizabeth, Emma, and Anne. The idea is not wholly original; in recent years, both Bridget Jones' Diary and Clueless have offered up modern-day takes on the plots of Jane Austen novels (Pride and Prejudice and Emma, respectively). However, Fowler's choice to have her characters read the novels in her novel makes her version a little unusual by being more direct: what would happen to the beloved heroines of Austen's books if they stepped into the 21st century? The possibilities for delighting newcomers to these classics and long-time fans of regency romance are certainly plentiful.

Fowler's premise, however, is not carried out to the extent that it promises. The six characters -- Jocelyn, Bernadette, Sylvia, Allegra, Prudie, and Grigg -- do take on the characteristics of their assigned novels in some respects, and an astute Austen scholar can find the parallels in each of their individual chapters. Prudie, for example, is a cleverly redone Fanny Price with all of her uptight virtues covering her secret, rather dramatic romantic fantasies. There are so many missed opportunities to really connect the stories to the lives of the characters. Only two of the novels, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, are presented with real skill, and these also happen to be the last two chapters of the book. It's a long time to wait to finally have satisfactory passages such as this one:
"Being rich doesn't effect the wanting," Bernadette was saying. "So much as the having. You can't possibly know all your husband's failings until you've been married awhile. Happiness in marriage is mostly a matter of chance." (Fowler 160, Marian Wood Book 2004 hardcover edition)
This is, of course, a play on a conversation between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas from an early scene in Pride and Prejudice, and its inclusion creates a sense of surprise and delight for the reader who knows enough Austen to recognize it. Similar passages can be found in the chapter about Persuasion, with parallel details even down to Anne Elliot's altruistic care for Louisa after her traumatic fall. These chapters do live up to the promise of Fowler's premise -- so why doesn't the rest of the book do the same?

The only conclusion I can draw is that Fowler is not as intimately familiar with the plots and nuances of Austen's other four novels. It's a shame that the chapters on Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma do not have the same level of detail of similarity between Fowler's characters and Austen's originals. The plot thickens, the characters and stories are engaging, but the true Austen connoisseur is left feeling disappointed that her beloved novels are not treated with the level of care they deserve.

Perhaps the best aspect of The Jane Austen Book Club is a short afterword titled "The Response" in which Fowler has collected quotes about Austen's novels from the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Henry James, Willa Cather, C. S. Lewis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jane Austen herself. It's wonderful to read this collection of commentaries, both positive and negative, from other Austen readers throughout the years -- a real-life Jane Austen book club, indeed.

Fowler starts her novel with the sentence, "Each of us has a private Austen." This may be the case, but unlike the author she has decided to imitate, Fowler doesn't successfully weave this thread of an idea through her book. Having it reappear after being lost in the folds of the plot to tie up the loose ends in the last few pages simply doesn't satisfy. This novel is pleasurable enough to read, and may indeed create new Austen fans out of the uninitiated, but Fowler misses her chance to capture the attention of a wider Austen readership.

final verdict: **

[p.s. Just for fun, take this quiz to see which of Jane Austen's heroines you most closely resemble. I'm a tie between Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot.]
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