Jane Austen Book ClubMarch 2008

In California’s Sacramento Valley, five women and one man meet in each other’s homes to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. Jocelyn, whose idea it was, has handpicked the members and starts the proceedings in March on her screened porch with its pretty view and a fog rising, where Emma is the book of the month. Jocelyn is something of a matchmaker and so we are immediately made aware of parallels between her and Jane Austen’s eponymous heroine. And we tend to assume that every member of the group is going to be shown to share similar traits with the characters under discussion. But Karen Joy Fowler, the writer of The Jane Austen Book Club, is more subtle than that. Certainly, there are many resonances in each chapter of the particular novel being dissected. For instance, Allegra goes public about her romances as readily as does Austen’s Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, but Allegra is a lesbian; the ill-concealed animosity of Jocelyn and Grigg on the dance floor (the book group is having an evening off from reading Pride and Prejudice) prepares us for the fact that they will soon be an item, in true Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy style; Sylvia’s estranged husband turns up to the last meeting which she is hosting to remind her that Persuasion is about second chances, and can he have one?

This is a book about reading, about the effect that a great writer can have on those who are willing to engage with his or her stories and the people who inhabit them. And it was high time that we, as a book group, tackled it. And, true to form, we were sharply divided in our response. Several members had been unable to finish it for all sorts of splendid reasons that Jane Austen would have immediately used in her next novel; some simply disliked it. A few of us adored it, thoroughly enjoying the references to the Austen novels, the descriptions of the different venues as spring moved into summer, the chairs sat in, the food served at each meeting, and regretful as we said goodbye to the six readers completing their discussion of the last book. ‘What if you had a happy ending and didn’t notice? Sylvia made a mental note. Don’t miss the happy ending.’

Our next meeting is on April 10 at Tremore when we discuss Katey, Lucinda Hawksley’s biography of Charles Dickens’ artist daughter.

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