I work with a few women who love to read as much as I do. We are always talking about our favorite books and authors. It was only a matter of time before we decided to establish our own little book club. Officially we meet once a week on our lunch hour. Weeks 1 & 3 are reading-together-at-lunchtime weeks, and weeks 2 & 4 are discussion weeks. But…unlike a club that meets only once or twice a month, we are lucky enough to see each other 5 days a week, so a typical day is like this:
“Where are you in the book?”
“I just got to that part where they….”
“I loved that part….didn’t you just die when….”
“I know! And remember when….”
“YES! That was the best! But I was so mad when…” You get the idea: Every day is book club day when you sit right next to the people who are reading the same thing as you. It’s great, but the official discussion days may be somewhat anti-climactic since we’ve all been discussing the book for 4 weeks already.
Our first pick is The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. Appropriate, no? I didn’t know anything about this book except that my mom said she loved the movie (and even my dad liked the movie) and I figured it must have something to do with Jane Austen, whom I love. I’ve only read 3 of the 6 Jane Austen novels: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion. And I use the term “read” loosely, here. I’ve seen different film adaptations of these books multiple times, so when I finally got around to reading the books, I’m sure it was more like a pretty good skim, rather than an entire read-every-word kind of deal. I was mostly looking for the similarities and differences between the novels themselves and my favorite film adaptations. [By the way, I love the BBC 6 part mini-series of Pride and Prejudice the best. My kids called this “The Mr. Darcy Show” when they were little because I watched it so many times back when I was a stay-at-home mommy. That Kiera Knightly film doesn’t even come close to it.]
To read The Jane Austen Book Club, you don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan, although you’ll get more out of it if you are. It’s really a collection of vignettes about each of the members in the club, but set into the context of one story. You have 6 members in the club, just as you have 6 novels, and when it is one character’s turn to host the book club to discuss a novel, then you get all of his or her stories at that time. These little character illustrations are usually told in the first person plural which was really interesting to me. The narrator telling the story talks about “We” as in all the members of the book club except the one male member. He was not part of the “We.” But the “We” was also omniscient, because at times when the story was unfolding, the narrator would say something like “this is the part we weren’t told…” or something like that. And you never really got a sense that the “We” was really one character talking for everyone…since every character was treated as part of the collective…there was never an “I” narration. I found this structure really fascinating. It was so different from anything I’ve ever read before. It wasn’t exclusive throughout the entire novel, however. Towards the end of the book, once we know all of the male character's stories, we get an inkling of a plot twist (that I was expecting) described via emails going back and forth between his 3 older sisters. It was hilarious, and so different and refreshing.
The Jane Austen fan will definitely appreciate the random quotes interspersed throughout the book. If you don’t know the Austen novels, you’d never notice or appreciate the quotes because they weren’t highlighted as quotes from the book, they’re just woven into the fabric of the dialog. These were like fun little inside jokes or treasures to be discovered. If I ever pick up a Jane Austen book again, you can be sure I’ll read its corresponding chapter in The Jane Austen Book Club concurrently just to pick up on more of these little gems.
Crack Factor – 7. This isn’t a plot-intensive, total page-turner story, rather it’s a bunch of inter-connected character illustrations. It could have been a collection of short stories, but instead the author chose to weave it all into one, so there are some common threads that tie the characters together and also propel you to the end to see how life ends up for each one.
Enrichment Factor – 8.5. I did learn more about the Austen novels in this book. I also loved the extra details that the author included at the end of the book, including a plot synopsis for each Jane Austen book and then dozens and dozens of Jane Austen references by other authors and literary critics. It was fun to see Austen's inpact in the larger literary world.
Writing Skills factor – 9. If I didn’t detail it enough before, I was fascinated, intrigued and surprised by the first person plural narration. I can’t remember ever seeing that structure before in another book.
Story Telling Factor – 9. These are simply really great little vignettes, embroidered together very well. Fowler does a great job of telling these characters' stories.
People Factor – 8.5. Fowler created some very memorable characters in this book, and in the telling of their stories, you get to know them pretty well, enjoying their joys and empathizing with their sorrows.
Total rating: 8.4
As a side note, years ago I read another book about a book club, called Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik. That's a good read, too.