Sherwood Smith's Reviews > The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
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Sep 17, 14

bookshelves: fiction

I do love Fowler's work. But I have to say I found this book a disappointment.

The story concerns the members of a Jane Austen book club--five women and one man--who meet to discuss the books. The structure is thus roughly divided into six months, and each month one of the people leads the discussion while Fowler interweaves that person's life story into the discussion, often punctuated by quotes from Austen's books. The prose is good, with a few eye-blinks (My favorite line, from the Jocelyn section: "We are not the saints dogs are, but mothers are expected to come a close second." One of the eye-blinks, during Prudie's section: "Lisa was a sweet girl who wanted to be liked by everyone. With luck she would survive until college, when being likable became a plausible path to that." To what?)--but the tone, overall, stays the same.

Kelly Link is acknowledged as a beta-reader; when I read the third section, and found yet again the tone was still the same, I realized the tone, the structural weaving, all made me feel like this story was somehow channeling Kelly Link. There are times when Link, at least to my eye, seems to impose a monotone voice on her wonderful structural experiments.

The real problem, I realized, was arrived at during that same Prudie section, when we had quotes from Mansfield Park interspersed through the text. Sometimes the quote seemed to echo back from the text, most of the time it didn't, but either way, every single quote, all of them known so very well I could peg them immediately, forced my mind back into the far more vivid imagery, characters, varying tone, of Austen's work. These constant plunges back into MP finally unmoored me from this story and I kept struggling against the urge to put this book down and reread MP; I realized, after yet again consciously disengaging myself from MP and resolutely finding my place on the page that the club people had yet to come to life for me, subsumed as they were by Austen's novels constantly reinvoked.

Was it that sameness of tone? Was it the fact that we get glimpses, and only glimpses, into the subsidiary women far more than the men? Was it that I was unable to perceive a meta-structure, a direction? I don't know, but finally it felt as if this book was cleverly following the patterns of fireflies while a glorious fire snapped and fooshed and radiated heat right behind them, constantly engaging not just my eye but all my senses while I tried to keep my eye on the fireflies.

I did enjoy the book discussions, but always found them far too brief, and that suggests to me that maybe I would have liked this book a lot more if I hadn't been so familiar with Austen. If, say, this had been The Virginia Woolf Book Club as it's been years since I read Woolf's fiction, preferring as I do her essays. The book discussions gradually became more interesting to me than the backstories, and I found myself wanting to argue with the characters instead of read their backgrounds. I could see that Fowler was trying to show us how their backgrounds informed their opinions of Austen.

She gives us a heads-up on her theme right with the very first line: Each of us has a private Austen, echoing Martin Amis's wonderful quote: Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape people, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the semioticians, the deconstructors--all find an adventure playground in six samey novels about middle-class provincials. And for every generation of critics, and readers, her fiction effortlessly renews itself . . .

Ah, the quotes. Finally, these were the best part of the book for me.

At the end, Fowler gives a precis of the novels (leaving out Lady Susan which I found odd, as Northanger and Persuasion were also unpublished by Austen during her lifetime, so that can't be her criteria) and those, frankly, drove me nuts. In that playful tone she reduces complexities to bald statements. Henry then falls in love with shy Fanny. She refuses the advantageous match and, as punishment, is sent back to her parents. "As punishment." No, that's not right. Not even remotely right, it skews the story and reduces Fanny to a mere victim and the Mansfield family into mere villains. Blech.

Fowler includes some of the responses to the novels recorded by Jane in her own time, which are all given at the back of one of the Chapman edition books. But then she provides those quotes from prominent people through the years since the books were published--all of them interesting, even if I have no idea who David Andrew Graves or Susan M. Korba are. Doesn't matter. Their opinions don't make me want to know anything more about them, but are interesting in the sense of showing how different people react differently to the books. Like Mark Twain's brutal dismissal (Every time I read "Pride and Prejudice" I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.) The last quote is a lovely one by J.K. Rowling.

The best of a lot of good quotes, for me, was that by Rebecca West, published in 1928 according to Fowler. And it kind of sums up the problem I've blundered about in this literary China shop in my attempts to formulate above. I will type it all out here:

Really, it is time this comic patronage of Jane Austen ceased. To believe her limited in range because she was harmonious in method is as sensible as to imagine that when the Atlantic Ocean is as smooth as a mill-pond it shrinks to the size of a mill-pond. There are those who are deluded by the decorousness of her manner, by the fact that her virgins are so virginal that they are unaware of their virginity, into thinking that she is ignorant of passion. But look through the lattice-work of her neat sentences, joined together with the bright nails of craftsmanship, painted with the gay varnish of wit, and you will see women haggard with desire or triumphant with love, whose delicate reactions to men make the heroines of all our later novelists seem merely to turn signs, "Stop" or "Go" toward the advancing male.
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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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Mely "Lisa was a sweet girl who wanted to be liked by everyone. With luck she would survive until college, when being likable became a plausible path to [being liked by everyone]."


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Sherwood Smith That makes sense, but it sure did trip me up. Thanks!


Mely Sorry I didn't comment on the rest of the review! I didn't have exactly the same reaction you did, but I did find this (and Wit's End) disappointing, not Fowler's best work.


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Sherwood Smith Mely wrote: "Sorry I didn't comment on the rest of the review! I didn't have exactly the same reaction you did, but I did find this (and Wit's End) disappointing, not Fowler's best work."

Yes--Wit's End was a terrific idea.


Merrie Haskell I had a reaction fairly similar to this the first time I read the book, but then I saw the movie, and somehow, that made the whole thing work together better for me. Such that I re-read the book to make sure I knew where the movie and the book split off. And... the second time I liked the book better. Leaps and bounds better. I don't know why--figuring out why would be an exercise in literary analysis and self-analysis that might both come to a bad end--but there you have it.


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Sherwood Smith Thanks! I might give it another read some day--I admire the author.


message 7: by Hallie (new)

Hallie I had pretty much the same response. Though I don't remember the Rebecca West quote, which is fantastic. Love this review.


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Sherwood Smith Hallie wrote: "I had pretty much the same response. Though I don't remember the Rebecca West quote, which is fantastic. Love this review."

That quote by West is extraordinarily insightful, innit?


message 9: by Hallie (new)

Hallie It is! Especially the bit about the Atlantic, which I must remember and quote to everyone!


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Sherwood Smith Yes--she puts her finger on the patina of patronization when so many male critics include her among their geniuses. "She's good . . .at that kind of thing . . . she's insightful in the tiny world of female domesticity . . .I'm sure you've read them."


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Moira Russell Rebecca West is awesome.


message 12: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Great quote there at the end, and I like the Amis quote a whole lot, too. Your metaphor of the hot, snapping fire versus the fireflies was excellent, too.

I found myself wanting to argue with the characters instead of read their backgrounds. --Definitely sounds like what you really wanted to be doing was discussing Austen, not reading a story about these particular characters, who happen to discuss Austen. Or, okay, I guess "who happen to discuss Austen" isn't exactly right, since that's the whole framing device, and guide, for the story (I guess? right? I haven't read it), but it sounds as if the frame overwhelms the actual story maybe? Or at least, for someone like you who's deeply engaged with Austen?


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Sherwood Smith I think overall the characters all basically had the same view of Austen, and spoke with pretty much the same voice. That was my disappointment. (And I didn't think the prose was as good as Austen's, which I know is even more subjective.)


message 14: by Jorrie (new)

Jorrie Spencer I enjoyed the book, but don't remember it clearly, especially as it has been overlaid by the movie. Which I enjoyed a great deal. I'm toying with reading Fowler's newest book though.


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Sherwood Smith Me, too.


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