Karen Joy Fowler

"The Jane Austen Book Club"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JAN 20, 2005)

"Each of us has a private Austen."

After almost 200 years the novels of Jane Austin are, if anything, more popular than they were when Ms. Austen first published them. There are many reasons for the author's avid following and universal appeal in the 21st century. I think almost everyone will agree that her writing is witty, perceptive and very revealing about middle class English society in the 19th century. I am a true blue Austin fan, but you don't have to be in order to enjoy Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. I do think, however, that the reader should be familiar with Ms. Austen's work in order to understand the allusions in this novel, and how the characters relate to those who people Austen's books.

Six women and one man meet monthly over a six month period to discuss Jane Austen's novels. They make up the Central Valley/River City, (CA), all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club. Each of the characters has "a private Austen." Jocelyn had come up with the idea for the book club. She devotes most of her time to running a kennel and breeding Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Like Ms. Austen, Jocylyn had never married. She is in her early 50s, very creative and has seemingly boundless energy. Her closest friend, Sylvia, another member, has just been abandoned by her husband of 32 years. Jocelyn had introduced the two in high school. She may actually have started the club to keep Sylvia occupied during this difficult time in her life. Sylvia's Austen is a practical woman, although she is open to love. Allegra, Sylvia's daughter, who insists on referring to herself as a lesbian in most conversations, is 30, stylish and sexy. She focuses on Ms. Austen's female characters and their financial dependency on men. Bernadette, an eccentric woman in her late 60s, has announced that she doesn't look in the mirror anymore. This becomes obvious as the plot and characters develop. Her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice, but the group postpones reading it because Jocelyn does not want to subject Sylvia to the "dishy Mr. Darcy," while she is in the middle of a divorce. Prudie, the group's youngest member at 28, is also the only one who is married. She teaches high school French, and her favorite novel is the somber Persuasion, Austen's last novel. Grigg, a 40-something, attractive, bachelor, has to deal with some initial, perhaps unconscious hostility, as the only male. He hosts the club meeting when they read Northhanger Abbey, his favorite.

The Jane Austen Book Club is more a character study than an action or plot driven work. We follow the characters' lives over a six month period, observe how they deal with love, loss, interact with each other and interpret Austen's work through their own individual experiences.

The author, a PEN/Faulkner award finalist for Sister Noon, has written an intelligent, modern-day social comedy, whose characters demonstrate similarities to Ms. Austen's, with all their foibles and follies. A big plus, are the commentaries on Jane Austen's novels by her friends and family, at the book's conclusion.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 324 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Jane Austen Book Club at Penguin

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About the Author:

Karen Joy FowlerKaren Joy (Burke) Fowler was born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1950. Her family moved to Palo Alto, California when she was 11-years-old. After graduating from Palo Alto High in 1968 she went to Berkely College where she majored in political science and was a antiwar activist. She was at Berkely during People's Park, when the city was occupied and there were tanks on the street corners, and she was there during the Jackson State/Kent State killings. This is also when and where she met her husband, Hugh Sterling Fowler II. They married after she graduated and then they went off to graduate school at UC Davis where she received her M.A. in 1974. She had her first child during spring break of the last year of her masters and two years later her second child.

Afer a lifetime of being an avid reader, it was on her 30th birthday that she decided to be a writer. Her work straddles the line between many genres, including science fiction, fantasy, historical, feminist, and philosophical. She is also the co-founder (with Pat Murphy) of the James Tiptree Memorial Award for fiction that tackles and sheds new light on gender issues. Her latest novel, Sister Noon was a finalist for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner award.

Karen and her husband still live in Davis, California; their son and daughter have left for college and beyond.

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