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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Karen Joy Fowler

eclectic reviews and opinions

Karen Joy Fowler,

The Jane Austen Book Club

I like Jane Austen enough that I knew I'd have to read this book as soon as I heard about it, despite the fact that I was virtually certain it would be dreadful. I'd read a few of Fowler's short stories and had generally liked them. But the setup of this novel seemed entirely too precious: a group gathers to explore Austen's novels, and events within the group resonate with the plots and characters of the books as they read them.

In actuality, The Jane Austen Book Club far exceeded my expectations. It avoids all the easy pitfalls. First, Fowler makes no attempt to mimic Austen's prose (something that's easy to do badly, and nearly impossible to do well). She adopts instead an extremely unusual narrative voice, the book club as a first-person plural gestalt. Second, the alliterations to Austen's novels are handled with a deft, light touch. I found myself rereading Austen in sequence partly (tellingly) to prolong the pleasure of The Jane Austen Book Club itself, but also to better appreciate the subtleties of Fowler's references to the novels.

The most explicit echo of Austen is structural -- Fowler limits the scope of her book much as Austen did. The present-tense action of The Jane Austen Book Club takes place primarily in the modern-day equivalent of drawing rooms. The cast is small, and its social class arguably, I think, roughly equivalent to the lower tier of the gentry that comprised most of Austen's populace. Yet The Jane Austen Book Club never feels constricted or uneventful (despite the fact that the plot is scarcely swift-moving or action-packed).

Most importantly, Fowler's book stands on its own. Its relation to Austen's oeuvre deepens it but isn't by any means its sole support. The Jane Austen Book Club has some commonalities with Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen. Like Weldon's book, it addresses the question of how Austen's novels, so very narrowly focused and so far removed from our time and society, can retain any relevance at all to modern readers. Fowler overcame a large chunk of my reservations within the space of the prologue, with her canny insights into Austen's enduring appeal:

"Bernadette's Austen was a comic genius . . . Sylvia's Austen was a daughter, a sister, an aunt. Sylvia's Austen wrote her books in a busy sitting room, read them aloud to her family, yet remained an acute and nonpartisan observer of people . . . Allegra's Austen wrote about the impact of financial need on the intimate lives of women. If she'd worked in a bookstore, Allegra would have shelved Austen in the horror section. "

But it's not necessary to like, or even to read, Austen in order to appreciate The Jane Austen Book Club's intrinsic virtues: the characters are interesting and vividly drawn, and the novel is a thoroughgoing delight -- funny, surprising, moving, and unfailingly smart.

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