The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This book sounded like such a great idea. And I loved the opening (“Each of us has a private Austen”) and the descriptions of each of the character’s Austens. There were also some really funny bits in the book – one of my favourites is:

“You’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho?” Allegra asked.

“Black veils and Laurentina’s skeleton? You bet. Didn’t you think it sounded good?”

We had not. We’d though it sounded overheated, overdone, old-fashionedly lurid. We’d thought it sounded ridiculous.

Actually it hadn’t occurred to any of us to read it. Some of us hadn’t even realized it was a real book.

“The mother in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand …”

“Don’t give anything away,” Grigg said. “I haven’t read it yet.”

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had never read Pride and Prejudice.

Grigg had read The Mysteries of Udolpho and God knows how much science fiction – there were books all over the cottage – but he’d never found the time or the inclination to read Pride and Prejudice. We really didn’t know what to say.

Overall, though, the book was basically disappointing. I think the main problem was that I just didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t actually care what happened to them. In particular, I was all set up to really like Prudie (anyone whose favourite Austen is Persuasion has me on their side right from the start), and was disappointed when she turned out to be a completely unappealing character.

I’ve heard it described as “chick-lit with pretensions”, and also as “not very good chick-lit”. My experience of chick-lit is not vast – I think the only two proper examples of it I have read are I Don’t Know How She Does It and The Other Side of the Story. For me, both of these books had the same problem as The Jane Austen Book Club – I just didn’t want to spend time with the characters. A lot of the emphasis seemed to be on them wanting to have it all, and messing up in their attempts to do so. It may all be very modern, and empowering, and realistic – but honestly, if I want to read a “girl” book, I’d much rather give my time to someone like Georgette Heyer. Her values may be old fashioned, but at least she creates characters I can enjoy reading about.

Even though I didn’t enjoy the book much, when I heard that Karen Joy Fowler was giving a talk at Stanton Library (10 minutes walk from work) last week, I thought I might as well go along. And I actually enjoyed the talk. She had a lot of interesting and amusing anecdotes – and it was good to learn that she was, in fact, a Jane Austen fan from way back.

I particularly enjoyed the story of how she came to write The Jane Austen Book Club. She was in a book shop, and she saw a sign on the wall for the “Jane Austen Book Club”. Thinking it was an advertisement for a book, she thought it was a wonderful idea, and immediately decided to buy it. When she got a bit closer to the sign, she realised it was an ad for an actual book club. And she was quite disappointed to learn that this book she had been looking forward to reading didn’t actually exist. Then, on the way home, she realised this meant she could write it herself.

It was a nice talk, and she seemed like a nice person. I just wish I liked her book more. Because it is a really good idea, but now that she’s written it there’s no chance for someone else to do it better.