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Love and Friendship
By Margaret Black

The Jane Austen Book Club
By Karen Joy Fowler
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 288 pages, $23.95

Don’t be put off by this book’s title: Regardless of your chromosomal configuration, if you’re a reader, The Jane Austen Book Club is a masterful piece of high comedy, with utterly sure, witty writing. You don’t even need to know Jane Austen’s novels—at the end of her story Fowler generously supplies plot summaries and selected snatches of Jane Austen criticism that range from the stupefyingly fatuous to the comically savage. Plus, of course, there are some favorable assessments.

The plot of Fowler’s book appears simple: Five women and one man get together once a month to discuss the six published novels of Jane Austen and consume an array of snacks and wines that will make any real-life book-club member faint with envy or laugh hysterically. Yes, everyone talks about Austen’s plots, characters, and preoccupations, but most of Fowler’s novel concerns the lives and loves of the club members themselves.

There is single, energetic, 50-something Jocelyn, who raises and shows dogs (Rhodesian Ridgebacks, “a matriarchal breed; it’s one of their many attractive features”); Jocelyn is full of no-nonsense efficiency and given to compulsive matchmaking. But gloriously sunny-tempered Bernadette, “just rounding the bend of sixty-seven,” is officially “letting herself go.” To no reader’s surprise, Bernadette’s long matrimonial career is not yet over. Then there’s Sylvia, whose husband has just left her after 32 years of marriage. Sylvia’s lesbian daughter, Allegra, has moved back home to show solidarity with her mother. Allegra herself has just recently dumped her own lover, Corinne, who’s “stolen” Allegra’s private confidences and then failed to get them published. (“How dare Corinne write up Allegra’s secret stories and send them off to magazines to be published? How dare Corinne write them so poorly that no one wished to take them?”)

Prudie, the club’s youngest member and the only one still effectively married, teaches high-school French, although she wonders why. “Prudie thought that she could just do the rest of it—watch them for signs of suicide or weapons or pregnancy or drug addiction or sexual abuse—but asking her to teach them French at the same time was really too much.” And finally there’s Grigg, the one man in the group, a computer techie and sci-fi fan who was asked to join the club by Jocelyn. “We’d known Jocelyn long enough to wonder whom Grigg was intended for. Grigg was too young for some of us, too old for the rest. His inclusion in the club was mystifying.” Which brings me finally to the narrator of the tale, a sort of disembodied collective voice speaking for all the female club members and apparently privy to everyone’s secrets, including Grigg’s. Despite my doubts, I have to say this works surprisingly well.

You don’t have to know Austen’s work because Fowler’s characters quickly get you up to speed on Austen as “an unmarried writer of novels about love and courtship,” or Austen as a comic/ironic genius, or Austen as “an acute and nonpartisan observer of people,” or Austen as a truth teller about “the impact of financial need on the intimate lives of women.” (“If she had worked in a bookstore, Allegra would have shelved Austen in the horror section.”) When Jocelyn says that dog shows emphasize “bloodline, appearance, and comportment, but money and breeding are never far from anyone’s mind,” it’s not hard to get the connection to Austen. In modern dress, with modern speech and nuance, Fowler’s characters nonetheless travel roads laid out long ago by Austen. The subjects that don’t appear in Fowler’s book coincide with “the partial list of things not found in the books of Jane Austen: locked-room murders, punishing kisses, girls dressed up as boys (and rarely the reverse), spies, serial killers, cloaks of invisibility, Jungian archetypes, most regrettably, doppelgängers, cats.” Neither do wars, revolutions, racism, economic misery, or anything much outside American middle-class experience. “But,” as the narrator says, “let’s not focus on the negative.”

The author’s present-day world is rich in humor and irony, but also in underlying need and desperation. Jocelyn and Sylvia, for instance, meet at age 11, in the Chippewa cabin at a Girl Scout camp. Jocelyn’s parents haven’t wanted their daughter to be unhappy, so she’s never been told a story with a sad ending. “‘It fell to us Chippewas to tell her about communists,’ said Sylvia. ‘And child molesters. The Holocaust. Serial killers. Menstruation. Escaped lunatics with hooks for hands. The Bomb. What had happened to the real Chippewas.’” The two women have been best friends ever since.

Prudie’s widowed mother simply fabricated events. When 4-year-old Prudie throws a fit because her mother will not rise from the couch to organize a birthday party, her mother contends that Prudie has actually already had a party, which she describes in great detail. “And her mother refused to back down. On the contrary, over the next few days, she embellished. . . . She even produced an opened package of napkins from the back of the cupboard, with ladybugs on them. ‘Left over,’ her mother said. . . . The stratagem had been such a success it was reemployed . . . whenever it suited her mother’s purposes.” Understandably, Prudie has trouble getting a grip on reality.

Grigg’s interest in science fiction gets us to a conference with panels like “Santa Claus: God or Fiend?” where we also learn how real-life would-be vampires turn invisible. But, as the little brother who’s had to survive three powerful older sisters, he also provides fascinating insight into gender, love, and—well, yes—into Jane Austen too.

Karen Fowler has the ability to write well any way she pleases, from the science fiction with which she began her career to her last novel, set in late 19th-century San Francisco, Sister Noon. The Jane Austen Book Club is her best novel yet.

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