Book 581: The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler

The last time I read this a good friend loaned it to me and we were still living in the dorms in undergrad! (So a really long time ago.) I don’t even know where this copy came from that I picked up, but it was a pleasure to revisit. I can’t believe it’s been FOUR YEARS basically since my friends and I did our own JABC.

Re-reading this was like visiting an old friend. They made a pretty true-to-the-book film adaptation in 2007 (IMDb link) that makes it feel like it hasn’t been almost a decade-and-a-half since I last read this.

It’s hard to say what’s so great about this book because it’s not the best book ever written and it’s not the most Jane Austen-y of books ever written. I think for me is the inherent move from Jane Austen to life:

“We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating. Could O’Brian have done this? How? When we needed to cook aboard ship, play a musical instrument, traverse Spain dressed like a bear, Patrick O’Brian would be our man. Till then, we’d just wait. In three or four years it would be time to read Austen again.” (249)

The book starts off pretty focused on the Jane Austen book club with the discussion of the books and the characters, but the further along you get the more the character’s lives take center stage. It’s subtle and you hardly notice it, but that’s what I liked about it. I wasn’t even offended they barely touched on Pride and Prejudice because their lives were taking the forefront by the time they got around to it. That being said each of the characters had their own version of Austen they read, which is another reason I really enjoy this book:

“Jocelyn’s Austen wrote wonderful novels about courtship, but never married.” (1)

“Bernadette’s Austen was a comic genius. Her characters, her dialogue remained genuinely funny, not like Shakespeare’s jokes, which amused you only because they were Shakespeare’s and you owed him that.” (1)

“Sylvia’s Austen was a daughter, a sister, an aunt. Sylvia’s Austen wrote her books in a busy sitting room, read them aloud to her family, yet remained an acute and nonpartisan observer of people. Sylvia’s Austen could love and be loved, but it didn’t cloud her vision, blunt her judgment.” (2)

“Prudie’s was the Austen whose books changed every time you read them, so that one year they were all romances and the next you suddenly noticed Austen’s cool, ironic prose. Prudie’s was the Austen who died, possibly of Hodgkin’s disease, when she was only forty-one years old.” (4)

“Allegra’s Austen wrote about the impact of financial need on the intimate lives of women. If she’d worked in a bookstore, Allegra would have shelved Austen in the horror section.” (4)

“None of us knew who Grigg’s Austen was.” (4)

I feel like I’m a bit more along Prudie’s Austen in that every time I read them there’s something new or different to take in. I seriously can’t wait to read them again in the next few years to see how they’ve (I’ve) changed. As I take so much time reading nonfiction about Austen, my readings of each book not only change based on my life experiences and what is surrounding me as I read, but my increased knowledge each time changes how I read them. I’m still not sure I understand why Austen’s novels are so timeless. They’re clearly set in a time and a place, but their stories – their essence are timeless.

“Jane Austen wrote six great romances, and no one died for love in any of them.” (108)

The dozens of adaptations on stage and screen, the thousands of spin-offs and fan-fiction works, and the brand that’s been created around Austen, her characters, and works, baffles and enthralls me.

If there is one downside to this book it’s that as much as we get to know the characters I have to wonder how much we actually know them. We’re with them for barely a year of their lives and sure there are a few flashbacks, but how well do we the reader know them. As I read and finish the novel (or watch the film) I feel I know them really well, but then the further I get from it the less I feel like I know them. I guess really they’re like acquaintances that you have a super specific and intense relationship with who you’ll always remember but not necessarily know.

Recommendation: This was a great quick read and I definitely recommend it whether you love Austen or not. It’s enough of an introduction you might want to read more of them. I’m remiss to say this, but if you don’t have the time to read it watch the film. It was a faithful adaptation and I felt they did a better job of capturing Grigg and Allegra than the book, which is weird.

Opening Line: “Each of us has a private Austen.

Closing Line: “In honor of Bernadette, with best wishes for her future health and happiness, Austen repeats herself: The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.   —JANE AUSTEN, 1775–1817” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)

Additional Quotes from The Jane Austen Book Club
“Austen’s minor characters are really wonderful,” said Grigg. “Good as Dickens’s.” Sylvia was very glad to have Grigg speaking right up this way. She wouldn’t have taken issue for the world, and anyway, what was there to possibly take issue with? There were authors whose names she didn’t like to use in the same sentence with Austen’s, but Dickens had written some very good books in his day. Especially David Copperfield.” (49)

“Surely Corinne didn’t expect her to stay home while racy poetry was being read aloud in a landscape of whips and dildos.” (67)

“In fact, why bother? Why bother to send teenagers to school at all? Their minds were so clogged with hormones they couldn’t possibly learn a complex system like calculus or chemistry, much less the wild tangle of a foreign language. Why put everyone to the aggravation of making them try? Prudie thought that she could just do the rest of it—watch them for signs of suicide or weapons or pregnancy or drug addiction or sexual abuse—but asking her to teach them French at the same time was really too much.” (86)

“Arriving late was a way of saying that your own time was more valuable than the time of the person who waited for you.” (163)

“‘It does bother me that Austen wouldn’t make up a good man who finds Charlotte worth having. The Brontës would have told her story very differently.’ ‘Charlotte on Charlotte,’ Allegra said. ‘I will always love the Brontës best. But that’s just me—I like a book with storms in it. What I was thinking was that Charlotte Lucas might be gay. Remember when she says she’s not romantic like Lizzie?'” (171)

“There was something appealing in thinking of a character with a secret life that her author knew nothing about. Slipping off while the author’s back was turned, to find love in her own way. Showing up just in time to deliver the next bit of dialogue with an innocent face. If Sylvia were a character in a book, that’s the kind of character she’d want to be.” (171)

“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.” (178)

“No one with real integrity tries to sell their integrity to you. People with real integrity hardly notice they have it. You see a campaign that focuses on character, rectitude, probity, and that’s exactly when you should start asking yourself, What’s this guy trying to hide?” (185)

“‘By the end of Pride and Prejudice, Jane, Elizabeth, and Lydia Bennet are all married. This still leaves two Bennet girls, Mary and Kitty, unattached. According to Austen’s nephew, she married them off later. She told her family that Kitty Bennet eventually wed a clergyman who lived near the Darcy estate. Mary Bennet wed a clerk from her uncle Philips’s office, which kept her close to her parents’ home and part of the only sort of society in which she could distinguish herself. Both marriages, according to Austen, were good ones. “I always like to know how a story ends,’ says Bernadette.” (198)

“Allegra liked being an aunt. Her brother Diego had two girls; that was all the kid time Allegra needed. Probably. All she wanted. Mostly. There would certainly be something challenging in a genetic code that made you gay but left your reproductive urge fully functional.” (215)

“Sylvia was not a happy-ending sort of person herself. In books, yes, they were lovely. But in life everyone has the same ending, and the only question is who will get to it first. She took a drink of peach margarita and looked at Daniel, who was looking back, and didn’t look away. What if you had a happy ending and didn’t notice? Sylvia made a mental note. Don’t miss the happy ending.” (243)


8 thoughts on “Book 581: The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler”

  1. I’m inclined to the Prudie version too – I was a latecomer to Austen, never really understanding for a long time what people meant by her ‘wit’. But once I discovered it, I couldn’t get enough of it. And then I found the social commentary…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so glad that I didn’t have to read it in school. If I would’ve been forced to read it then, knowing how boyish and idiotic the other boys were in my grade I would’ve rejected it soundly. I “discovered” it on my own at the right time for me and it sounds like you did too!


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