“Each of us has a private Austen.”- Karen Joy Fowler (page 1, Prologue)
The Jane Austen Book Club is one of the few books I’ve seen the film version of first. I have been hesitant to read it, as I had heard that it was distinctly different from the film, but when I saw it on the shelves of Basement Books (yet again) for $5.95, I couldn’t help but buy it for the train. It surprised me, in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s chick lit but it manages to include those subtle Janeite jokes, and secondly, the different storylines blend seamlessly into a delicious little read.
It’s a very different style to read if you’re into that beach-read culture. Firstly, there isn’t one single plotline, or even a defined plotline, in the entire piece. While romances do blossom, you are swept along, diving in and out of the different book club member’s memories and histories- be it Jocelyn and Sylvia’s highschool prom, or Prudie’s memories of her mother. You become close to them, and understand why they are how they are, and you don’t even realise that you’ve spent most of the book looking back on their experiences rather than what’s actually going on. I love this. Despite the relationship we see in the film version (that I reviewed about a year ago) between Prudie and the highschool boy not existing to the same extent in this book, it is nonetheless far darker than the movie. Sexual assault, betrayal and general emotional fuckwittage (that was for the Bridget Jones fans) are rampant. All the characters are fleshed out tremendously well, with particular emphasis on Allegra, the “teen lesbian alliance” girl from the film, as a mature 30-something jewellery-maker who comes alive in the book more than she ever did on screen.
The book is written in first person plural (“us”, “we”) that immerses you into the book club, and though which character it is written by is unstated- treating all the members of the club as separate, delving in and out of their lives impersonally and knowing only what an omniscient narrator might know about each of them. This technique, while different, works really well. The book’s structure is such that it is divided into the different months and Austen novels- one for each of those month of book club and we see certain aspects of the characters’ lives reflecting the novels. While each character ‘controls’ or ‘hosts’ a month, the chapters are never defined to describing one character’s life. The order of reading is: Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. The Pride and Prejudice chapter, in which “we listen to Bernadette” goes through the flippant first impressions of the characters towards each other, which I think is fitting. “Sylvia’s first impression of Grigg was that he had nice eyelashes and a funny name, and didn’t interest her in the slightest” “Grigg’s first impression of Jocelyn was that she appeared to think sharing an elevator with him for a few floors was some sort of punishment.” We see the lives of the characters become increasingly entwined, and there’s this lovely sense of seeing them say the wrong things to each other (and unintentionally offend) but knowing the reasons behind what they’re saying, and knowing when they’re deflecting (as Sylvia does to many of the other members of book club).
The chapter then goes on detailing their month- the Library Dinner, discussions of dancing and similar. Allegra suggests that Charlotte Lucas is perhaps gay, and then my favourite line of the book arises: “There was something appealing in thinking of a character with a secret life that her author knew nothing about. Slipping off while the author’s back was turned, to find love in her own way. Showing up just in time to deliver the next bit of the dialogue with an innocent face.” That is a truly wonderful observation. While the chapter deviates from Pride and Prejudice, and Austen, for large segments (alike the rest of the book) parallels are eventually seen between the characters. And the chapter ends with the lovely summation, as seen in Austen’s nephew’s letters, that in Jane’s mind she married off Kitty to a clergyman who lived near the Darcy estate, and Mary to a clerk from her uncle Philips’ office so she could remain near home.
At the end of the book is a lovely appendices. Firstly, the bare facts of each novel are laid out. The original titles of the books, the year written and published (1796-1797, 1813 for Pride and Prejudice), what Austen felt about each novel (P&P: “rather too light and bright, and sparkling”, needing some “solemn specious nonsense”) and an outline of the plot. Then we are given responses from people over time in the form of quote lists. Mary Russell Mitford on Pride and Prejudice and assorted quotes from 1810-2003. And the last section is “Questions for Discussion” from the characters in the book club themselves. They are not academic (in general), are very fitting to the characters and are generally multi-layered. An absolute must-read section.
A fun, quick read that is best read after having devoured all of the Austen novels. It would have been great to see a bit more Austen in there, and being involved in my own book club there are points of conversation that I’m surprised weren’t mentioned (I wonder if Karen Joy Fowler ever had her own book club, and what the people in that were like?). It’s nice and reflective to read if you have or have ever been in a book club yourself and definitely one to get for any friends who are big fans. Have you read it? What did you think in comparison to the film?