Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Austen fans see depth in 'Book Club'

By Heidi Vogt
The Associated Press

It has been said that a writer who imitates a great author is more likely to gain renown as a great mimic than as a great writer.

However, in The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler manages to imitate, mimic and parody the 19th-century author of Pride and Prejudice while creating an insightful profile of 21st-century society that's all her own.

"Each of us has a private Austen," Fowler writes, setting up a voyage deep into the private lives of her characters to show how six people can read the same books and come out on the other end knowing six different Jane Austens.

The members of this "all Jane Austen all the time" club are:

• Prudie, 28, a French teacher who has never been to France;

• Sylvia, who's about to be divorced;

• Allegra, 30, a lesbian getting over a bad breakup;

• Bernadette, 67, a veteran of several marriages;

• Jocelyn, a single and middle-aged dog-breeder;

• and Grigg, a science-fiction buff and the only man in the group.

As we get to know these people during the club discussions, their reactions to Austen provide a window into their private, tumbled worlds.

"We'll start with Emma," Jocelyn, the founder of the group, tells the others. "Because no one has ever read it and wished to be married." Then, as Jocelyn discusses Emma, the reader is taken back into her memories of one of her first sexual encounters and the shame that accompanied it.

Austen's books ignore sex. Fowler's novel takes Austen's prim tales and wraps them in stories of sexual awakening and emotional turmoil expressed in very impolite fits of rage and desire. Yet when the club meets to discuss Austen, the members allude to only their chaotic lives.

There are plenty of winks to Austen fans: the cadence of the dialogue is Austen-like, as is the book's comic touch. The characters are also familiar, including the chatterbox, Bernadette who "never said anything once if it could be said three times."

Those who haven't read Austen will miss some of the allusions to her work, but anyone who has lived deeply enough in a book to feel a kinship with the characters will understand what Fowler's characters are going through.

Anyone, that is, except men. While The Jane Austen Book Club has a depth that removes it from the lists of chick-lit summer reading, it is definitely not for men. Grigg provides balance in the group and potential romance for the females, but does not infuse the book with much testosterone.

"Grigg was too young for some of us, too old for the rest. His inclusion in the club was mystifying," Fowler writes, expressing the views of all of her female characters. But he does provide solace for Austen newcomers when he admits that he's reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time.

And, by the by, the back of the book has a summary of each novel discussed - a useful cheat sheet.


The Jane Austen Book Club

By Karen Joy Fowler

Putnam; $23.95; 288 pages

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