Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler

I love Jane Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was in seventh grade, sleeping over at a friend’s house and staying up late by myself with a flashlight to finish the novel, quietly gleeful when Elizabeth finally accepted Mr Darcy’s proposal.

I have since read and re-read Pride and Prejudice, and have gradually devoured all of Austen’s other novels with almost as much pleasure.

You would think an avid fan of Austen’s writing, herself a member of a book club, would find a book entitled The Jane Austen Book Club enthralling. Instead, I am sorry to say, I just didn’t like it.

By all means, if you are a hardcore Austen fan and hunger for anything even mildly related to Austen or her books, give it a go. The writing is not bad. It is simply contrived. What is it with this tide of books using motifs from the classics to infuse what would be plain and mundane stories with something that might pass for a touch of high-brow?
Bridget Jones’s Diary was better. Because the writing itself is amusing and Fielding doesn’t take herself or her characters too seriously, I found the parallels in the framework of Bridget Jones to Pride and Prejudice to be entertaining rather than distracting or just plain irritating, as they become in The Jane Austen Book Club. Similarly, I confess to having greatly enjoyed Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season (not Austen but Alexander Pope is emulated here) – again because it was a little tongue in cheek, a little original in and of itself before borrowing substantially from the Western Canon. In order for a writer to be permitted to improvise from the springboard of the Canon I think it is essential that they first earn the right through innovation, creativity, great writing or – at the very least - a sense of humour wittily expressed through the written word.

Many people have given Fowler’s most recent novel stunning reviews. The Washington Post, for example, ends its stellar review of the book with this line:

“That it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged.”

Again, with the borrowing. It is like the repeated cheapening of Beethoven’s Ninth or Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by their use in pop/techno/dance songs or advertising jingles. The opening line of Pride and Prejudice was once dear to me but now, after so much re-hashing and over-use in the popular media it is beginning to grate. Similarly, when one of the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club persists in referring to Austen as ‘Jane’, it is grating – even if this is intended, even if it is critical to the development of that character, it grates like fingernails on a blackboard.
The Jane Austen Book Club follows the lives of five women and one man over a period during which they meet regularly to discuss Jane Austen’s work. At each book club meeting a different Austen novel becomes the focus of discussion. Each book club member is dealing, in his or her life, with significant issues – separation from a spouse, falling in love, homosexual love, the lure of an adulterous liaison – each theme is explored through a character. And each character, each relationship, is meant to reflect – some with more subtlety than others – a Jane Austen character or plot.

The novel is set in California.

Am I the only reader who feels that an attempt to set a re-hashed version of all of Jane Austen’s novels in modern-day California might be a bit of a stretch? We don’t have the literary equivalent of Baz Luhrmann’s directorial genius to turn a classic into a modern cult icon (as he did with the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet). Nor does Fowler have, as Luhrmann did, the excuse of altering aspects of the original text with the liberty permitted by the use of a different medium. Shakespeare never had the medium of film at his fingertips.

Fowler’s novel is accompanied, at the end, by various appendices – synopses of all of Jane Austen’s novels (so you don’t actually have to read them), an admittedly riveting collection of comments by Jane Austen’s family, friends, colleagues on her novels and her life, and the now ubiquitous set of Questions for Discussion. Like that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer creates a coffee table book about coffee tables that actually becomes a coffee table, here is a novel about a book club created especially for book clubs, cheat-tools included. Worse still, the questions are apparently posed by the book’s characters themselves. Questions by the characters about the characters, in which they seek to draw parallels between their lives and the lives and characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

I understand the concept. And yes, the novel is diverting – I was absorbed and read it very quickly – but it feels forced. And the notion of the book, what it is meant to do, the discussions Fowler envisions her readers having across America (and the world?) is, to me, a kind of Austen equivalent to the science fiction convention, science fiction being a genre which does also feature in this book (in the Pride and Prejudice themed relationship, no less – along with Rhodesian Redbacks and an age gap – a Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher age gap, not the traditional Elizabeth Bennet/Mr Darcy age gap).

Fowler says towards the beginning of the book that each of her characters has his or her own ‘private Austen’ – an image or an understanding of Austen (the person, not the books) of his or her own making. This continued emphasis by Fowler and her characters on the author rather than the literature is another annoyance. But I suppose that Fowler is partly right – I too have a private Austen. And she is just that – private.

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