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Thursday, July 8th, 2004


The Jane Austen Book Club

by Karen Joy Fowler

Herd Mentality

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

I was in a book club once and found it wholly annoying. You have to read books that you don't necessarily want to read and discuss them with irritating people who don't get your jokes, like when you say, "Who chose this book? Because I thought it sucked." You have to eat food that is emblematic of the novel; my book club ate jam sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs just like the picnicking couple in Margaret Atwood's riveting Blind Assassin. (Thank goodness we didn't read Hannibal.) And you have to read the novels on the schedule that the book club sets for you, which takes all the fun out of reading for pleasure. But the worst thing about book clubs is their overwrought seriousness about the task at hand.

You would have thought we were deliberating the best way to handle an intervention. People claimed they knew the novel better than anyone else, said they knew just how it was all going to end, asserted that it was a good book at heart under all that incendiary language, argued over obscure points, and breathlessly told personal stories they felt were relevant to the novel's themes. There was also some finger-pointing, shouting, and cursing — but there's an excuse for that: I was right and they were wrong.

The book club I was in comprised solely women. Indeed, book clubs have become to today's American woman what consciousness-raising groups were to the Me Generation. Oprah Winfrey — who started the trend, inspiring The Today Show, Kelly Ripa, Internet groups, and God knows who else to start book clubs at one point or another — had the genius to realize that soccer moms throughout the country were just dying to read the books she chose for them (making those books best-sellers in the process) and get together to discuss how said books changed their lives while drinking coffee and eating biscotti. And so it is with the characters in Karen Joy Fowler's latest, The Jane Austen Book Club. The women in this novel's "All Jane Austen, All the Time Book Club" — I know, it's nauseating — mirror both the Jane Austen mold (the matchmaker, the shrew, the shy one, the eccentric) and the Oprah demographic (the middle-aged, educated, slightly independent, slightly domestic woman). Which means that thousands of women will now be reading this novel to read about characters just like them who are also reading about other characters just like them. So television has inspired reading, which has inspired a novel, which itself is inspired by a writer and which will no doubt become a movie. And the circle of life continues.

The Jane Austen Book Club has received a lot of accolades, but frankly I don't get what all the hubbub is about. The "postmodern" (or, as one of the characters says, "pomo") fuss seems to be based entirely on Fowler's neat trick of writing individual story lines that mimic Austen novels. There is Jocelyn, who falls for the guy she pretends to dislike, Grigg, whom she also happens to be trying to set up with her best friend, Sylvia. Grigg is the token man in the book club, but — like Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility — he is so emasculated as to be irrelevant. Sylvia is the heartbroken wife whose husband has left after more than 20 years; he comes back at the end, apparently inspired by reading the foreword to Persuasion, and all is well. Sylvia's daughter Allegra is a thrill-seeking, histrionic lesbian (how pomo is that?) who has little patience for anyone else's opinion and who is trying to grapple with her girlfriend's betrayal — she passed off Allegra's personal anecdotes as her own original works of fiction. (Imagine someone doing such a thing!) Then there's Bernadette, the wacky but older and wiser oddball who dispenses great advice but can't match her socks; she conveniently marries the man of her dreams — a Costa Rican hotel owner she meets while birding — who appears just briefly in the last pages of the book. The only section I enjoyed involved Prudie, a teacher and a shrew and the one fully developed woman in this novel. Fowler creates a childhood for Prudie that is so unique in its insanity that I wanted a whole novel about her, her crazy mother, her achingly perfect husband, and her issues with lusting after the students in her class. Yet Fowler drops this fascinating woman, plods along with the rest of the book club's banalities, and resolves Prudie's story line so unsatisfactorily (she practically sighs, "I guess I do appreciate my husband after all," and is never really heard from again) that I almost tore the book in two.

For the most part, these characters are incomplete actors with nearly nonexistent plots — nothing really happens and then all of a sudden in the last chapter everyone gets coupled up in the blink of an eye. But then I have a similar problem with Austen herself. To me, her novels read like literary sitcoms, where every plot is tidily reconciled at the end and all the characters are paired off in adorable couplets without a second thought. I hate this predictable symmetry, and I don't find it funny. Give me satire, give me edgy, dark, black comedy, but spare me trite, zany miscommunications followed by a few dozen marriage proposals and weddings. (Except, of course, for the Austen-inspired film Clueless, which was successful as a satire of Beverly Hills, not as a romance.) The psychology of matchmaking is nowhere near as interesting as the psychology of relationships. But the characters' relationships inevitably go unexamined, since their lives magically parallel the novels from book club.

And truly, book clubs are interesting as a social phenomenon, not as the subject of a novel. A book about book clubs — how gratingly meta. I can't say that book clubs are a bad trend. Why shouldn't more people be reading and discussing (and buying) books? But where does this urge come from? Are we so bombarded by lowest-common-denominator pop culture (evidenced by TV shows like Yes, Dear) that we crave any scrap of intellectualism we can get? Oprah's latest book-club selection is Anna Karenina. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to hear her thoughts on one of the most famous suicides in literary history. But the hilarity doesn't stop there: Oprah has a guide to Anna Karenina, a "summer training program," a reading calendar, and a Russian pronunciation guide! Book clubs have become very sophisticated animals, and the publishing world has followed suit. Now novels even come complete with discussion questions in the back. In The Jane Austen Book Club, Fowler has given us questions from her characters themselves. There are Jocelyn's questions and Allegra's questions and all the questions of our favorite characters with whom we've shared Austen during Nescafe moments on the back porch at dusk. (My favorite book-club discussion question: "Which of the women in Sex and the City is Dean really most like?" I think it speaks for itself.)

So what could be the basis for Fowler's rave reviews? Are parallelisms inherently impressive? There was a huge fuss made over Shakespeare in Love and The Hours, which also deliver through-the-looking-glass spins on original works. As clever as some of these gimmicks may be, this seems like a very easy way to write a novel; the plot is already laid bare. Is it asking too much for authors to lose the "gee-whiz" factor and write organically? I can only assume that Fowler's book is doing so well because the title contains the words "book club." Her book is cheeky and cutesy and terribly shrewd. In this age of Oprah, it practically markets itself.

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