I am always skeptical of books that rely on other popular books for recognition or ideas, so I was a little wary when I picked up A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (2011) by William Deresiewicz. It didn't help that Deresiewicz admitted that he disdained chick lit Austen until he was forced to read her in graduate school. What was I going to learn from some close-minded, literature snob about books that I already knew that I loved? But I was also curious about his perspective.
And for the most part, I liked it. Deresiewicz looked at Austen's six major works and related them to revelations he had about his own life. There is a short description of each novel and liberal Austen quotes, along with some insight into Austen's life and where she was when she wrote each book. I may have enjoyed this book as much as I did because I loved the reminder of all the best parts of all of Austen's novels. I now really need to read Persuasion again. I haven't read that one in forever.
I'm not sure if I buy the author's entire set up, though. The clueless author read Austen's oeuvre and learned how to live his life. He was able to grow up, become a better friend, and fall in love. All because of Austen! It all seemed to fit a preconceived format a little too perfectly. I liked his analysis of Austen's books and I liked hearing about his life. However, I always thought of Austen as someone who understood and could describe human character with amazing wit and language. Austen was in the business of showing us what we already know about the world. And the amazing thing about her is that even hundreds of years later, what her characters do and say still ring true. I didn't need to read Persuasion to know that it's better to be honest with your friends. But when I read Austen, I can see people I know in her characters and they are so real and so loveable or irritating that they are unforgettable.
Deresiewicz declared that true friendship today, "means unconditional acceptance and support...But Austen didn't believe that...Yes, the true friend wants you to be happy, but being happy and feeling good about yourself are not the same things...True friends do not shield you from your mistakes." (194) I completely disagree with Dersiewicz here. Of course true friends are honest with you. Again, Austen didn't need to tell us that. The understanding of true friendship has not changed since Austen's time. Superficial friends tell you what they think you want to hear.
I also didn't quite understand or relate to Deresiewicz's discussion of the rich prep school friends he had right after graduate school that went along with Mansfield Park. The way the author wrote, it sounded like people with privilege and money were heartless social climbers without purpose but requiring constant entertainment. Admittedly I have never been a part of that kind of social circle, but many of the distinctions he was making just sounded like the difference between introverts and extroverts: that they couldn't sit still and contemplate themselves or the world. I find myself in an odd position when I'm defending the rich, but there must be some rich people who have managed to find purpose without caring too much about status.
All in all a good book, but mainly because of its subject matter.