Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

"Each of us has a private Austen."

My reading patterns are so predictable: once I read a novel I truly enjoy, I have to hunt down everything from the same author. I usually end up reading them in succession, too, although I try not to. If I read everything in one sitting, and they are all extremely good stories, what will I read after the next book that might turn out to be crappy? I should always have a novel waiting to restore my faith in good writing.

So, here we are. My second full-length Karen Joy Fowler.

The story seems simple because on the surface it is quick to read: five women and one man sit down to talk about Jane Austen's novels. Each chapter is a separate occasion, labeled by who is hosting and which novel is read.

Whereas I will give some time to revisit We Are All... to be able to experience at least some of the shock its twists and turns provided, Jane Austen I can see getting better and more complex with each rereading: the way Jane Austen Book Club is crafted is not simple at all. Each character is an Austen character, without heavy finger pointing or blatant copying of actions and quotables to give even the thickest reader a nudge. Their escapades, flashbacks, and interactions are clever references to Austen, while the story is completely enjoyable even if the reader has never read or heard of Jane Austen.

Adding to that, the story takes on the reflective nature of reading: we have six individuals discussing the same novels, but finding lovable traits in characters others think are appalling, or defending questionable actions their favorite characters commit. These discussions are intermingled with flashbacks to the the book club host's past, providing a framework for adulthood morals and ideas.

During this first read, I don't think I got it all: I'm not familiar with all of Austen's work (as much as I am a fan of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, I have never actually read it!) and now I feel like I should read them all just to be even better prepared for my second reading of this book. I'm sure I missed a lot of references.

As to my personal Austen favorite: Northanger Abbey.

It's a mockery of people who follow trends (Gothic literature in this case) and how obsessed impressionable young minds can get with reading fiction. Further, it is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking that a real jerk of a person will eventually turn out to be a lovable, misunderstood hero, just because that's what our tropes tell us to believe in fiction. Had this novel been written slightly later, it would have been about the dangers of believing that real life should play out like romantic comedies or Disney films.

This was the first book Austen wrote, but the last to get published--posthumously. I can just imagine her peddling this novel that criticizes fiction, and then going, Aw what the hell and writing Pride and Prejudice--where a real jerk of a person will eventually turn out to be a lovable, misunderstood hero.

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