three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
user_rating: 
0

A-JaneAustenBookClub "Each of us has a private Austen," writes Fowler. In a town near Sacramento, six Austenesque personalities meet monthly to revive Austen’s classics, from Emma to Mansfield Park. But don’t be fooled. The members, including the beautiful lesbian, Allegra, the "control freak" hostess, Jocelyn, and the sole male participant, Grigg, don’t live life in 19th-century drawing rooms. Instead, they sip margaritas and diverge from weighty literary discussions into real life, where they ruminate on Austen’s world and their own. Do we all just want a "happy beginning, happy middle, [and] happy ending," as our mothers taught us? Or is there something more to life?
Putnam. 304 pages. $23.95.

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s that rare book that reminds us what reading is all about. … Lovers of Austen will relish this book, but I envy any reader who comes to it unfamiliar with her. There’s no better letter of introduction." Patricia T. O’Conner

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Karen Joy Fowler creates a novel that is so winning, so touching, so delicately, slyly witty that admirers of Persuasion and Emma will simply sigh with happiness. ... It’s just as hard to explain quite why The Jane Austen Book Club is so wonderful." Michael Dirda

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Part character study, part social commentary, part literary puzzle, Book Club builds on Fowler’s success as an author of highly creative fiction. … Book clubs are the built-in audience for this novel, as is anyone who can relish the love life of women old enough to remember wearing white cotton gloves." Anita Sama

NY Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Fowler has the genial notion to see in the book club—that newish American cultural phenomenon—a society resembling nothing so much as one of those sets of country gentry among which Austen constructed a social comedy where irony stiffens sentiment, and pain is a cool afterthought. … In Ms. Fowler’s wit, the way she renders the pratfalls of emotion and desire, and the deceptively mild temperature of her splintering detonations, she comes closest to her model." Richard Eder

Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sure, it’s better if you’re an Austen devotee, but the novel about six people who gather to dissect and relish her books manages to charm even if you’re not." Janet Cho

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Let me say right away that if you aren’t a Jane Austen fan, reading this book will be like hearing a group of people earnestly discussing a mutual friend whom you don’t know. … Fowler proves a witty ironist, not unlike Austen herself, in her commentary on the foibles and the hopes of her characters." Melinda Bargreen

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"There is, undoubtedly, a certain charm to the novel, though one suspects this comes less from Fowler’s plot than from its much loved subject. Things are summed up by the end in the manner in which Austen would have certainly approved—an appropriate conclusion for an amusing, readable work, but hardly the kind of lasting classic from which it borrows." Andria Spencer

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Although one might accuse Fowler of using Austen merely as a kind of hook, there is nothing wrong (in principle) with her wish to go beyond a comic exercise in amateur literary criticism to write her own novel about six contemporary characters in the Central Valley. The trouble is, these characters are not vividly drawn and, unlike Austen’s characters, they are not convincingly developed." Merle Rubin

Critical Summary

How do we interpret Austen’s take on love and courtship, money and morals, today? Take the feminist Allegra. If she had worked in a bookstore, she "would have shelved Jane Austen in the horror section." In this ambitious novel, Fowler uses Austen’s works to comment on modern society and reveal how readers engage with books. Critics praise Fowler’s sharp wit and dialogue, but disagree about the characters. Grigg’s a diamond in the rough (and single, ladies!), but Allegra’s a bit tiresome. The occasional "we" perspective, while intriguing, distances readers from the characters. And if you haven’t read Emma, you might feel left out. Still, it’s a great read—replete with 21 pages of quotes about Austen and a Reader’s Guide to embellish your next book group discussion.

Also by the Author

We provided a book-by-book profile of Jane Austen’s body of work in our January/February 2004 issue.

A-SisterNoon.epsSister Noon A Novel | Karen Joy Fowler (2001): If you’re interested in more from Fowler. The rebellious heart of a sedate 40-year-old spinster in 1890s San Francisco awakens when a visitor comes to her door. A PEN/Faulkner award finalist (Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto received the award).