Friday, April 2, 2010

Redux #24 - "The Jane Austen Book Club" by Karen Joy Fowler

Okay, I'm going to try to make this one fast. It's already past one a.m. and I have to wake up early tomorrow to help a friend of mine move. The book: The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) by Karen Joy Fowler. Now this one I picked up despite my general dislike of the gimmick of using a classic novel or famous author to sell your own inferior product. I once read some kind of "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice, entitled "Mr. Darcy..." something or other, and it was horrible. I wasn't expecting much but whoever that author was took all my favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice and stuck them in some appalling, 19th century, romance-novelized version of the Jerry Springer show. I did not finish that book.

Fortunately, The Jane Austen Book Club did not take the same route--although, on the whole, I was still not very impressed. At the beginning of the novel, Jocelyn, the single, independent, type-A leader forms a book club where the six members will talk about each of Jane Austen's six books--one per month. Bernadette, an older, talkative woman who does not care about how she dresses anymore is one of the members. As is Prudie, the somewhat "prudish" French teacher. Two other members are Jocelyn's best friend Sylvia, who is struggling because her husband just left her after 31 years of marriage, and Sylvia's daughter Allegra, the temperamental lesbian artist. Grigg is the only man, the youngest of three older sisters, and a fan of science-fiction. As the story continues, the characters talk about the Jane Austen novels. The discussions are accompanied by flashbacks and insights into each book club member's life.

And that's about it. The discussion on the Austen books was not deep enough to be very interesting. This was also the problem I had with the characters. Although some of the flashbacks might have been interesting on their own, perhaps as a short story, I never got enough information to know or care about the characters before Fowler moved on to the next one. The descriptions of the characters in the paragraph above pretty much sums up everything I found out about them; they were shallow and unreal. It felt like a book version of Love Actually, jumping around from story to story, hoping that the reader might relate to at least one of them.

I also had a problem with the narration. I couldn't figure out who the narrator was supposed to be. I think the narrator was a voice for the collective women of the book club, but how can one voice speak for everyone in the club? I also found both the narrator and some of the characters annoying. I think I finally figured out that the narrator was trying to mimic Jane Austen's witty and often less than positive observations of the characters in her books, but it obviously wasn't as well done (it's hard to beat Austen on that) and just felt bitchy to me.

I got the impression that this book was trying to be feminist, or at least a "go woman" kind of book. After all, there's a lesbian, and there's a strong, single woman as a protagonist; and they're reading the books of Jane Austen. However, again, it didn't really work for me. It felt like the kind of feminism that only revels in the differences between men and women. The female book clubbers were all affronted that Grigg had not read Austen before joining the book club and took it upon themselves to "put him in his place" when he commented--especially because he was male. Why would you attack someone for those reasons? He's a science-fiction fan (another thing the women judged him for) who wanted to read Jane Austen. I think that's pretty cool. Some of the women deride yet another man later in the book for not reading Austen, and even though it annoys me when people dismiss Austen as "women's fiction," I couldn't get behind Fowler's characters here. I do have to admit, though, that I rather liked Grigg's story about his sisters. But then we have the moral: "We'd let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating." Really? Read Jane Austen and find a boyfriend/significant other? Is it that we'll see ourselves in her characters and understand ourselves better...and then um, jump into a relationship?

The Jane Austen Book Club was leaps and bounds ahead of that Mr. Darcy whatever book, but I was not very interested in the characters or the minimal plot and was disappointed by the lack of depth in the discussions on the Jane Austen novels. My favorite part of the book was actually in the very back where Fowler had compiled a large number of famous writers' comments on the works of Jane Austen. That was kind of fascinating.

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