Jane Austen Book Club
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
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
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