06/09/2011

The Jane Austen Book Club (by Karen Joy Fowler)

I haven't previously come across books by Karen Joy Fowler; she's an author in the USA who writes predominantly about women.

I had seen - and heard guarded recommendations for - 'The Jane Austen Book Club', but it had never quite grabbed my imagination. However, when I saw it at a church bookstall for a euro, I thought I might as well buy a copy. It was my bedtime reading for a little over a week.

There are six characters in the book, who meet monthly to discuss Jane Austen's novels. The oldest is Bernadette, a fairly contented woman in her sixties. The founder of the club is Joycelyn, who is something of a matchmaker but unmarried herself. She starts the club primarily for her long-standing friend Sylvia, whose husband has just left her, and also invites Sylvia's rather outspoken daughter Allegra. Prudie, a young French teacher, is the youngest - and then there's Grigg, the only man in the group, and he really prefers science fiction.

The book has brief descriptions of the meetings, hosted by each member in turn, with a different book to be discussed. I was a little disappointed that there was actually so little discussion of the books. A few sentences, one or two minor disagremeents - and that's all we get from the meetings. They are interspersed with a lot of flashbacks into the characters' pasts, and also their present temptations, friendships and work lives.

I found it somewhat interesting, on the whole, but not especially so. It's quite a short book so I could easily have finished it in a couple of days, had I found it difficult to put down. As it was, I kept forgetting who was whom, and rarely remembered which Austen book was actually being discussed. There really isn't much plot - rather less so than in Austen's own books which would not have been a problem if I could have related to any of the characters. But they seemed both caricatured and sadly flat - not even amusing like some of the people they discuss.

I kept trying to like the book, which has had some acclaim in literary circles, and wonder if somehow I must have missed the point. I understand that the people's lives were supposed, in some way, to mirror those that Austen wrote about, but I couldn't see it.

Still, it made pleasant enough light reading. I am fairly familiar with Jane Austen's novels, which probably helped in making sense of the club meetings - such as they were - but for anyone who isn't, there are brief details about Jane Austen's novels at the back of the book. There are also some fascinating glimpses into comments and quotations made by her family, friends and other readers.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 6th September 2011

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