The plot: five women and one man meet monthly to discuss each of Jane Austen’s six novels. Bonus: Maybe some of the themes found in Austen relate to the characters’ modern day woes and triumphs.
While the concept of “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler seems simple, the execution is anything but. The book is full of flashbacks and life-defining moments that provide context for how the main six characters have become who they are today.
There’s Jocelyn, the matchmaking, unmarried dog breeder and trainer who brings the book club into existence and directs its structure and members.
Sylvia, Jocelyn’s lifelong friend, has recently divorced from her husband and works through her grief while rediscovering who she is—since her (now) ex-husband has been a part of her life and by her side since she was a teen.
Allegra is Sylvia’s daughter, a lesbian who is brash on the outside, vulnerable and hurt from failed relationships on the inside. While she’s trying to be supportive of her mother and join her in the Austen club, she likes stoking drama and playing devil’s advocate.
Prudie is a young high school French teacher in an unhappy marriage, the biggest Jane Austen purist of the group, as well as the most pretentious.
Bernadette is the worldly matriarch of the group, the eldest (at 67), six times divorced, and one of those women whose lived experience verges on the fantastical. She’s at the point where she cares nothing about other’s impressions of her and instead lives her life in whatever way most suits her at the moment.
Grigg is the final member and only male invited to join the club. He’s new to Austen (primarily a science fiction reader), but he’s game to explore this new territory. He’s also clearly inserted as a potential romantic partner for one of the group, though the specifics aren’t black and white up front.
I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but the ties to Austen themes in relation to how these characters navigate their everyday lives are tenuous. It could have easily been overdone and heavy handed, but on the other hand, a book with Austen at the center seems like it should have more obvious parallels.
The book club meetings themselves are a bit slow, and the characters’ observations on Austen’s novels unexciting.
While some of the story lines are compelling—Jocelyn’s distrust of men after a lifetime of microagressions, being taken for granted or abused, for example—as a whole I find this book unmemorable.
I’ve read it several times (I kept forgetting if I had read the story), and seen the movie based on it, and yet these characters and the plot don’t make a lasting impression.
Overall, it’s a fine book, one that I didn’t hate but also don’t need to spend any more time with.
3 of 5 stars.