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

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The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, essentially what it says on the tin. Six people form a book club exclusively to read Austen, although it serves a dual purpose. Jocelyn, who forms the club, is eager to distract her friend Sylvia from her ongoing divorce.

I’d read Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves before this, and while I’m not regularly stirred by books in a personal way, that one did get to me. So when I saw The Jane Austen Book Club at a bookstore, I thought, why not.

I didn’t expect a clear or organised plot, but the plot seemed to lack structure altogether. This doesn’t bother me normally, I think I mostly overlooked it in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The loose pattern Fowler followed was that whoever hosted the upcoming book club meeting would have their life under scrutiny. While this may have worked for me in a slightly more concrete setup, it felt hazy and clumsy, and unnatural. The thing I did become extremely aware of was that Fowler seemed to employ a collective voice. While there was no individual narrator, the reader was given the impression that the group as a whole was speaking, but this in itself is impossible, because they could not all possibly have had the same opinions. It was somewhat strange – I remember reading the list of six names and rereading the line thrice to see where I’d missed the ‘and myself’. The characters collectively comment on each other, so it feels somewhat dishevelled and confused, and the reader is not sure who is speaking at any given point. I like the form, but I don’t really know why Fowler used it, it wasn’t unsuitable but it wasn’t particularly suitable either. At one point it becomes quite obvious how impossible this narration is, when the narrators describe an incident in the life of an individual character and then say that they were never told of the incident in question. I suppose this may have been Fowler’s wit which is even stranger and very different from anything else I’ve experienced (although I’m not in the habit of reading funny books, and wish I read more).

Fowler is clever with her humour at times, and I was able to appreciate it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I may have cracked a smile at one or two lines, but by and large I just didn’t think it was funny. I guess this could be put down to the fact that I enjoy a particular brand of comedy and this wasn’t it (although, I did enjoy the little of Austen I read, and did not find it to be very similar).

This is a good time to confess I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, so perhaps this whole review is invalid. (I enjoyed it and I do plan to read all her works someday, just as I plan to read a lot of other things. Life keeps happening.) So perhaps this should be taken with a pinch of salt, but I didn’t find anything interesting about the discussions of Austen’s novels. Had Fowler replaced Austen with another author and changed around the discussions and some names, I feel the effect may have been similar. It’s true that much of the book is about the characters and their personal relationships, but that’s not unique to Austen. Many books are about personal relationships.

The thing that really ruined it for me was the characters. I didn’t really like any of them, I didn’t sympathise enough with any of them to overcome my neutrality towards them. I had no significant feelings about any of them by the end of the book. I was slightly interested in the characters of Prudie (a French teacher) and Sylvia (the woman whose husband asks for a divorce after many years of marriage) but ultimately there wasn’t enough character development in 250-odd pages to make them more appealing. Each character gets a turn at having part of their personal life come under the spotlight, but nothing that they said added up to a plot structure. It was neither uninteresting nor interesting, and it just didn’t seem related to the story – or lack thereof, I guess. Perhaps the reason I found Prudie and Sylvia somewhat compelling is that they were experiencing things in real time (in the novel) while the others were often left to recall stories from the past which didn’t seem at all relevant to anything. I just didn’t care enough about them to care about their pasts.

To sum up, I’d say it was clumsy without many redeeming qualities, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t really enjoy reading it.

PS. A post almost a month after my last one? I’m so impressed with myself. I’m aware the blog name is kind of dull, but I am not, overall, the most interesting person in the world.

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