From Publishers Weekly
Fowler's fifth novel (after PEN/Faulkner award finalist Sister Noon
) features her trademark sly wit, quirky characters and digressive storytelling, but with a difference: this one is book clubâ"ready, complete with mock-serious "questions for discussion" posed by the characters themselves. The plot here is deceptively slim: five women and one enigmatic man meet on a monthly basis to discuss the novels of Jane Austen
, one at a time. As they debate Marianne's marriage to Brandon and whether or not Charlotte Lucas is gay, they reveal nothing so much as their own "private Austen(s)": to Jocelyn, an unmarried "control freak," the author is the consummate matchmaker; to solitary Prudie, she's the supreme ironist; to the lesbian Allegra, she's the disingenuous defender of the social caste system, etc. The book club's conversation is variously astute, petty, obvious and funny, but no one stays with it: the characters nibble high-calorie desserts, sip margaritas and drift off into personal reveries. Like Austen, Fowler is a subversive wit and a wise observer of human interaction of all stripes ("All parents wanted an impossible life for their childrenâ"happy beginning, happy middle, happy ending. No plot of any kind"). She's also an enthusiastic consumer of popular culture, offsetting the heady literary chat with references to Sex and the City
, Linux and "a rug that many of us recognized from the Sundance catalog." Though the 21 pages of quotations from Austen's family, friends and critics seems excessive, the novelty of Fowler's package should attract significant numbers of book club members, not to mention the legions of Janeites craving good company and happy endings.
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From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Five women and one man meet periodically to discuss the work of (arguably) the greatest novelist in English. Six people, one for each Jane Austen title. It is California, a hot summer in the Central Valley early in the 21st century, and these are ordinary people, neither happy nor unhappy, but each of them hurting in different ways, all of them mixed up about love. Sylvia's husband, Daniel, has left her after 32 years and three children. Jocelyn, her best friend, never married and now focuses on breeding dogs. Prudie is a French teacher in her late twenties, in possession of a worthy husband yet disoriented by persistent fantasies about sex with other men. Sixty-something Bernadette has decided that she's finally over the hill and can act a little dotty, just let herself go. The beautiful, risk-taking Allegra -- Sylvia and Daniel's lesbian daughter -- has quit speaking to her lover. And Grigg, a middle-aged science fiction fan and computer whiz, is strangely unattached. But then maybe he's gay? Together they form the "Central Valley/River City all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club." And with them Karen Joy Fowler creates a novel that is so winning, so touching, so delicately, slyly witty that admirers of Persuasion and Emma will simply sigh with happiness. On the surface, the novel looks like elegant chick-lit. (But, in some lights, so does Pride and Prejudice.) At each meeting of the club we are told about room furnishings, the hors d'oeuvres and wine served, the issues raised by that week's book -- and about turning points in the past lives of the hostess (or host) of the evening. Not surprisingly, we hear mainly about first love, youthful identity crises and middle-aged angst. But somehow Fowler invests high school crushes, the gift and burden of older sisters, a restless dreamy father, a mother's devotion, previous marriages and all the common heartaches of life with unforced pathos. As a result, the reader inevitably bonds with the group as much as its members do with each other. Meanwhile, Fowler only gradually unfolds her true plot, even as she worries us (at least a little) with possible betrayal, injury, death. But her understated humor is her real triumph. In fifth grade young Grigg is introduced to science fiction: "His father handed him a magazine. On the cover was the picture of a woman in her underwear. Her black hair flew about her face in long, loose curls. Her eyes were wide. She had enormous breasts, barely contained by a golden bra."But best of all, unbelievably best, was the thing unhooking the bra. It had eight tentacled arms and a torso shaped like a Coke can. It was blue. The look on its face -- what an artist to convey so much emotion on a creature with so few features! -- was hungry." This is certainly an apt description of nearly any issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories or Amazing in their pulp heyday. But what a lovely balance between the typicality of the illustration, the absolute rightness of the boy's response and the author's unspoken affection for both.Fowler is nowadays esteemed as a kind of magic realist in the Angela Carter mode -- see her novel Sarah Canary or the stories in Black Glass -- but longtime readers know that she comes out of science fiction. I wondered, for instance, if the bearded and bear-like but unnamed man that Jocelyn meets might be the late Damon Knight, not only a superb writer (author of the celebrated, much copied story "To Serve Man") but also a great teacher to generations of sf authors, from Gene Wolfe to Karen Joy Fowler herself. In his approach to fiction Knight valued indirection, obliquity and polish over Space Ranger shoot-em-up action. Fowler's art is of this sort -- she approaches her characters' various stories at a slant, builds toward emotional climaxes, then swerves away at the last moment. Each chapter of The Jane Austen Book Club ends decorously, mutedly, implying that the reader's intelligence can fill in the gaps. You can readily see how much she's learned from Austen about structure -- and about irony. When someone describes Northanger Abbey as "very pomo," she writes: "The rest of us weren't intimate enough with postmodernism to give it a nickname. We'd heard the word used in sentences, but its definition seemed to change with its context. We weren't troubled by this. Over at the university, people were paid to worry about such things; they'd soon have it well in hand." Every seemingly harmless sentence here is perfect, one easily overlooked put-down after another. Probably the funniest exchanges in The Jane Austen Book Club take place at a dressy banquet. The group sits with a contemporary mystery novelist named Mo Bellington, who tells them about his "magpie motif. I use them for portents as well as theme. I could explain how I do that." The hapless Bellington -- one is tempted to call him Po-Mo -- has never read Austen, is even a little unclear about what she's written. Prudie attacks. "Not five minutes earlier her mother's death had been painted across her face like one of those shattered women Picasso was so fond of. Now she looked dangerous. Now Picasso would be excusing himself, recollecting a previous engagement, backing away, leaving the building." You certainly don't need to be an Austen addict to enjoy this charming novel, though cognoscenti will pick up, say, the parallels between Elizabeth Bennet's shifting attitudes toward Darcy and the criss-cross feelings that surprise two of these contemporary readers. Giving yet another twist to her own story, Fowler also includes a series of appendices: plot summaries of Austen's novels, several pages of brief critical comment on them by various notables and finally a series of "Questions for Discussion
," these last supposedly formulated by the six characters we have just read about. Postmodern indeed. In the end, though, The Jane Austen
Book Club is no tricksy fictive experiment. It's about real and ordinary life. Grigg's three big sisters hardly appear, but they are just wonderful -- shrewd, resolute and fiercely protective of their baby brother, no matter what his age. Fowler can summarize parental love in a deft, neatly ambivalent aperçu: "Sylvia thought how all parents wanted an impossible life for their children -- happy beginning, happy middle, happy ending. No plot of any kind. What uninteresting people would result if parents got their way." Even the dogs are keenly observed: "Sahara came away from the screen door. She leaned into Jocelyn, sighing. Then she circled three times, sank, and rested her chin on the gamy toe of Jocelyn's shoe. She was relaxed but alert. Nothing would get to Jocelyn that didn't go through Sahara first." In the novel's final pages, as happy endings are starting to come together, Sylvia again reflects on children, and the thoughts are those of every middle-aged mother: "Sylvia found herself suddenly, desperately missing the boys. Not the grown-up boys who had jobs and wives and children or, at least, girlfriends and cell phones, but the little boys who'd played soccer and sat on her lap while she read The Hobbit to them. She remembered how Diego had decided over dinner that he could ride a two-wheeler, and made them take the training wheels off his bike that very night, how he sailed off without a single wobble. She remembered how Andy used to wake up from dreams laughing, and could never tell them why." It's just as hard to explain quite why The Jane Austen Book Club is so wonderful. But that it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged.
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