Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

I heard this book was silly, and I heard the movie was silly. Then I got a free copy of the movie and figured what the hell, it wouldn't kill me. And to my surprise, I really liked it! To the point where I've watched it 4-5 times now. So when I saw a free copy of the book I grabbed it. But I've put off reading it because the movie was too fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, that was still true now, when I finally did pick it up, and there were moments when a few minor discrepancies threw me off (Allegra and Bernadette least match their descriptions, and Prudie's storyline was amped up considerably in the movie while Bernadette's was reduced - adding sex in place of age, sigh) but overall, I have found that the movie was quite true to the book, and the book is wonderful.

I was at moments a little thrown by the point of view, but in the end it worked for me. Each chapter is a book club meeting that is told in what I can best describe as reverse second person, interspersed with flashbacks in limited third person. What I mean by reverse second person is that the meetings are talked about as if "we" are there. "It hadn't occurred to any of us to read it." "We paused for a moment." But whoever is speaking in first person is never made clear. In fact, it's almost as if our narrator is a seventh, unnamed member, because as we go around the group and each member gets a chapter, never once do the "we"s and "us"s turn into "I." It sounds odd (and admittedly, I don't recall ever having run across this before, or even having heard of it) but it's not confusing or awkward.

I liked the bits of humor ("If only she [Prudie] would stop speaking French. Or go to France, where it would be less noticeable." p. 58) I loved the Austen analysis of course. This is the second book about Jane Austen's novels that I've read this year and I do hope to reread one in the fall. I also wish my book club could stay on topic as well as theirs, which did make it seem a little fake, but I've heard that other book clubs do stay on topic more, so maybe the problem is with my book club, not with the depiction in this novel.

I wished the book didn't end! I wanted to know about Bernadette's other husbands (that's the big storyline that is left out of the movie - how Bernadette met her first husband), I wondered why Allegra's did what she did at the end (It's different from the movie somewhat so I don't want to spoil it, but I wasn't thrilled with her decision), and I wondered how Grigg and Jocelyn's relationship was going to go and how Sylvia and Daniel's reconciliation also would turn out. The characters all felt very real to me, and I imagine their lives as going on, outside of the novel, which is so tantalizing.

I especially loved the discussion questions at the end. They are slightly critical of the author (although I suspect written by the author herself, particularly since I am ready an Advance Reader's Copy, which normally does not have discussion questions.), given by the different characters, and also are very funny. Such as, "Have you seen any of the adaptations of Austen's novels that star a Jack Russell terrier named Wishbone? Do you want to?" or "Did you ever stop to wonder how a woman [Allegra] who supports herself making jewelry affords health insurance?" or "Do you ever wish your partner had been written by some other writer, had better dialogue and a more charming way of suffering? What writer would you choose?"

I am thrilled I finally read this book. I enjoyed it immensely. And while perusing the long compilation of quotes from notables about Austen and her novels at the end of the book, I noticed something about Twain's famous critique. He says, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone." And yet, for all his protestations, read it again. Did you notice he said "every time I read..." which means he has read Pride and Prejudice multiple times. Hmmm. I wonder exactly how much he could have hated it, to have reread it repeatedly.

I picked up this copy at a book swap for free.


Julie @ Read Handed said...

Good point about the Mark Twain quote! I never thought of that. Yeah, he must have really hated it to read it so many times... ;)

nomadreader said...

I absolutely loved the movie (and have seen it more than once too), but I haven't felt the desire to read the book. I am curious about Fowler's other work. Perhaps I'll check those out sometime.

Chris Thompson said...

I really enjoyed the movie as well, but I don't know if I'll read the book.

Great review!

Christy said...

I saw the movie first too and thought it would be just pure forgettable fluff, but it really stuck with me and I ended up buying it. I love the scene of Grigg in the bookstore with Jocelyn. I listened to the book on audio and liked the 'extra' stories added from the characters' pasts. I remember Grigg being rescued by his pack of sisters was a highlight.