Once again, I had decided to read a book I was somewhat skeptical about because of all the hype it had received, and also because when a book has been made into a movie (as I understand this one has been) one has also the dual task, if possible, of being responsible for a comparison of the two, and I haven’t seen the movie. But to forge on ahead–this book is not at all what I expected from what I had heard. I had expected a sort of latter day imitation of Jane Austen’s world, in which (from what I had heard) the characters reading Jane Austen would begin to enact their own interior dramas and have relationships like those in an Austen novel, and would have happy or at least deserved endings, and then (as happens these days) there would be a reader’s guide to glance through for things I might want to think about, and then the book would be over. A “good read,” but nothing spectacular, no fireworks, just a calm, if poignant, reminder of “our Jane” and her achievements. A good read, be it understood, in the same way that Austen is a “good read,” requiring one’s wits for the piercing turn of phrase and one’s contemporary awareness that even Jane had her limits, mainly those of no longer achieving a sort of sexual politics we can nowadays feel comfortable with. After all, marriage is no longer the only game in town.
But this book refused to cooperate with attempts to dismiss it (and I’m not sure now why I was trying to be so lazy), at the same time as it didn’t seem that well done, I couldn’t think why. Perhaps it was because I was expecting a holistic experience, a standard “fourth wall realism” novel, in which (to borrow the term “fourth wall realism” from theater arts) the audience is allowed to maintain its fiction that it is looking at reality. It’s not that The Jane Austen Book Club had any strange events, particularly, or departed from what we know of earth as described by basic biological tenets: it was rather that the structure of the book itself bore a strange resemblance to something that had been dismantled and left on the floor or table in a partial state of reassembly.
True, there were six main characters in the book club, each of whom had a story in which they predominantly figured, and a book each which they were responsible for discussing of the six major works of Jane Austen featured in their discussions. And, there were subsidiary characters who impinged upon their awareness and the plot itself. But the six chapters of the months of the year during which they met, and the extra seventh chapter, and all the additional material included with the novel itself was a little confusing (the book had not a few odd pages of added random information stuck in here and there, and a strange editorial “we” narrative voice, apparently not representing any of the named characters, who spoke up now and then). More and more as the novel went on, it bore the character not of a “fourth wall realistic” novel, which was what I had been expecting from the hype, but of a shattered experience known rather to the postmodern novel, with its characteristic disorientation of the reader and the reader’s presuppositions.
In truth, though I was a little bored with the novel proper, I found the overall tribute to Jane Austen to be quite valid and valuable and interesting. And I don’t say I was bored because it was postmodern in its structure, but because the characters, along with the subsidiary characters who impinged upon their lives, added no real “flow” to the book. It was largely a novel in which each character was briefly sketched, given some lines to say, and made to move toward some other character in the book. The most significant sentence in the entire book occurs near the end of the novel: it says, in the mysterious editorial voice (none of the named characters), “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.” This is presumably the “sop to Cereberus” of an Austen-like result that is meant to conclude the “business” of the tribute in the somewhat scattered pieces of the story line. The after-material is another case, however.
I found that I was easily more interested in the editorial job Fowler had done with the Austen legacy and its documents than I was with the novel itself. At the end of the novel, there is a “Reader’s Guide” (a brief and highly significant quoted paragraph); a quick run-down of the plots of Austen called “The Novels” (apparently intended to supply acquaintance and encouragement for those who haven’t read Austen yet); a section called “The Response,” which I easily found the most intriguing, composed of reactions from Austen’s contemporaries and family members and followed by those of famous writers and critics since; and then the inevitable “Questions for Discussion” and an index of “Acknowledgements.” Once I had made my way through this material, I “saw [the book] steadily and saw [it] whole,” and this allowed a reassembling in my own mind of what I think Fowler’s purpose must have been: I think it was largely an educational one, and though I don’t think the quality of the novel stands up to the quality of the overall project, I am glad I read the book, and can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though I have expressed various reservations.
My suggestion to readers is this: if you are a new reader of Jane Austen, read at least one Austen of your choice before you read this book. Asking other Austen readers for a recommendation as to which one can be a frustrating task, because it seems that each novel has its own cadre of readers. Maybe looking at Fowler’s section entitled “The Novels” will help you choose. After reading the Austen novel, then read Fowler’s novel from beginning to end, for the purpose of comparing how a latter-day admirer of Austen may write, though I don’t think the two are comparable in quality (Fowler’s effort, though perhaps more familiar in its structure to our contemporary scene, seems a little thin and slapdash by comparison with Austen, and in having made her novel referential, Fowler has invited the comparison). Lastly, and perhaps side-by-side with reading other Austen novels, read the rest of the whole of Fowler’s fine attempt to interest readers in the author whom she so obviously admires, and especially read “The Response” section: everyone, it seems, has an opinion of Austen, and some differ widely (or wildly). My guess is that all-in-all, you will come away with a similar affection for Jane Austen, and a debt of gratitude to Karen Joy Fowler, for having put your feet on the Austen reading path to start out with.