Austen the Facilitator
The Jane Austen Book Club
By Karen Joy Fowler.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004. 288 pages.
Reviewed by C. H. Hinnant.
As the title suggests, Karen Joy
Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club
adopts as its central organizing principle an occasion that will be
familiar to most members of JASNA: a monthly meeting in which a
disparate group of people join together to discuss one of Jane Austen’s
novels. Over the six months that they meet, five women, Jocelyn,
Sylvie, Allegra, Prudie, and Bernadette, and one man, Grigg, consider Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion respectively. An
epilogue contains a (tongue-in-cheek?) “Reader’s Guide” that includes
brief paragraphs on the novels and footnoted quotations from reviews,
letters, and published comments by luminaries as diverse as Martin Amis
and Andy Rooney. It should come as no surprise that the monthly
discussions provide little more than a pretext for narratives
describing the lives, past and present, of each of the characters.
Indeed members may even find particular observations about the
canonical novels, with the exception of Mansfield Park, rather perfunctory.
In striking contrast to the principle characters of Austen’s novels,
the protagonists of the Jane Austen
Book Club are haunted by past incidents. Jocelyn, who organized
the club and has never married, is unable to forget a humiliating
sexual episode that took place when she was 15 years old. A genuine
Austen devotee, Prudie muses at one point that she might have become a
high school French teacher as “atonement” for having participated in a
cruel hazing incident when she herself was a senior in high school.
When Allegra, the daughter of Jocelyn’s close friend, Sylvie, was four
years old, she took offense at how much white space she once found in
one of her mother’s beauty magazines. Breaking into tears, she explains
that “she was sobbing because she could see that she would never be
done; her whole life would by used up in the hopeless, endless task of
amending this single lapse in taste. She would grow old, and there
would still be white sheets, white walls, her own white hair.” How
different in perspective is Elizabeth Bennet’s sturdy advice to Darcy:
“think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” As
Nicholas Dames has observed in a fine recent study of Victorian
fiction, “the nostalgia that Austen’s narratives increasingly depict
and produce is…a form of forgetting—a winnowing of the specific,
emotional disturbance, and unpredictability of reminiscence into a
diluted, vague, comfortable retrospect, the wistful and sentimental
forms of longing that we know as nostalgia.”
It is, of course, unfair to judge The
Jane Austen Book Club by the yardstick of Austen’s novels. Its
strength lies in its depiction of the untidy lives of its principle
characters. They seem particularly susceptible to retrospective
detours, and their inability to prevent the eruption of desultory,
chaotic reminiscences renders them vulnerable to contemporary
misfortunes and reversals. Prudie is unable to come to terms with the
recent death of her mother; Sylvie finds it difficult to accept her
husband’s sudden announcement that he plans to divorce her; and Allegra
can’t deal with the consequences of her own decision to leave her
lover, Corinne. Jocelyn and Grigg both lack the resources to cope with
the aftermath of a disastrous outing in which he is first late in
picking her up for an important event and then carelessly allows his
car to run out of gas before they reach their destination. Only
Bernadette, who has been married several times, seems capable of
building a psychic structure that leaves her relatively disengaged from
the events around her, but the result is that the other characters find
her lengthy disquisitions tiresome. Nonetheless, it is the pathos of
the members of the book club that gives them their undoubted appeal.
The conclusion in which the various characters are reunited with old
partners or paired off with new ones cannot overcome this pathos, for
it implies that these attachments are as likely to prove as impermanent
as the former ones. Fowler’s achievement is to render a sense of each
individual as related to past events distinctly, almost as if she were
constructing six parallel and interwoven dramatic monologues.
Nonetheless some readers may be disappointed that The Jane Austen Book Club is not
more like Austen’s novels. Where then might one turn today for broad
social comedy, dry wit, and incisive satirical characterization, along
with the comforts of a genre-driven narrative? Without denigrating the
distinctive achievement of The Jane
Austen Book Club, one might provisionally suggest that the
Austenite consider turning to the novels of Carole Matthews, Kate
Fforde, Elizabeth Young, Robyn Sissman, Lauren Henderson, and possibly
even Nick Hornby.
Note: Several JASNA members are cited in the book, including David
Graves and Elsa Solender.
C. H. Hinnant is a member of the Central Missouri Region.
v.20, no. 2, Summer 2004, p. 20
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