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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Book Review: Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels by Rachel Cohen

Just after Rachel had her first baby, her beloved father's illness returned and he died. She found throughout the period in which she had two children and lost her father, she could read nothing else but Jane Austen. She returned over and over and over again to her five novels (not Northanger Abbey which is a farce of a Gothic novel.) At different times, different novels spoke to her. She could pick them up anywhere and just read a few pages and put them down. Reading them was more of a form of meditating, rather than novel reading. She wasn't reading for content or critique, but for comfort and reassurance. Much like H is for Hawk, this novel is about how grief renders one utterly shocked and unable to cope in their usual ways--therefore glomming on to a talisman that seems to make some sense of the new world.

At times the book made me sad. Rachel's father sounds delightful. I have a professor father myself, but we never go on walks (unless you count golf in which case on vacations we often go on walks.) It's a fascinating idea, for one who hasn't reread a book in years, to consider rereading and rereading and rereading. What new insights would one get on the 20th rereading? The 50th? Would I one day grow to like, or at least appreciate, Mansfield Park? Unlike other readers I've always liked Emma--would I perhaps grow frustrated with her? Anne is so passive and so sad, but has been my favorite heroine--would she stay that way? And the silly Marianne, would I perhaps appreciate her emotionality more?

Alas, I don't see me finding out, but I do, in my own way, revisit Austen's novels over and over, through pastiches, retellings, biographies, hagiographies, and other variations on this theme. This likely will be a lifelong pastime.

And it it calming to read this quiet meditation on Austen, on her life and her heroines, during a difficult time in someone else's life, and how Austen provided solace and comfort. Each of us will deal with grief in our own time and our own way, and I hope I can do it with as much grace and thoughtfulness as Ms. Cohen.

This book is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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