Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Sunday Salon - The Jane Austen Book Club

Thanks for last week's reading suggestions. I've definitely got a few ideas to talk over with my department chair during pre-planning next week. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to read Little Brother - I'm finishing up my house-sitting gig today, and this past week I was getting my things together to take back to my apartment. I've been house-sitting for about a month, so I've accumulated quite a few things here (mostly books and yarn) that need to be transferred to my apartment. Little Brother was apparently placed in the "books going back to the apartment" pile, rather than the "books staying here so that I can read them" pile. Oh, well. I did finish The Yiddish Policemen's Union, but that book has also been mis-piled, so I can't write a review of it (yet). I also finished some more BSC books and read a bit more in Less Than Zero.

Last week, I put The Jane Austen Book Club on my Book Mooch wishlist. There was only one copy available in the US, and I wrote to the owner to ask if she would send it to me. She replied that she would, but it would be a few weeks before she could get around to it. I didn't mind the wait - my TBR pile is full enough without adding to it - but then I received an e-mail from BM saying that my mooch had been cancelled because her account had been deleted. I was a little disappointed, but figured it was just one of those things and didn't think too much about it. I went by the apartment to check the mail on Friday, and guess what was in my mailbox? My mooched copy of The Jane Austen Book Club! I wasn't going to read it, but I ended up getting stuck somewhere waiting and it was the only book I had on me. I got so sucked into the story that I finished it in two days. There are a bunch of passage that I really enjoyed and wanted to share (I felt a bit like Prudie, marking places in the book to comment on later with my friends).

I loved Grigg's take on Northanger Abbey:
"I just love how it's all about reading novels. Who's a heroine, what's an adventure? Austen poses these questions very directly. There's something very pomo going on there."
The rest of us weren't intimate enough with postmodernism to give it a nickname. We'd heard the word used in sentences, but its definition seemed to change with its context. We weren't troubled by this. Over at the university, people were paid to worry about such things; they'd soon have it well in hand. (138)
I was also happy to read someone else referring to postmodernism as "pomo." I do that without realizing it, and it never occurred to me that my listeners might not know what I'm talking about. Oops.

I also enjoyed Allegra's interpretation of Charlotte Lucas:
"What I was thinking was that Charlotte Lucas might be gay. Remember when she says she's not romantic like Lizzie? Maybe that's what she means. Maybe that's why there's no point in holding out for a better offer." Allegra rolled onto her back and propped her wineglass onto her face so as to get the last drops. Sylvia could see her nose through the curved glass. Even this, on Allegra, was a flattering look.
"Are you saying Austen meant her to be gay?" Sylvia asked. "Or that she's gay and Austen doesn't know it?"
Sylvia preferred the latter. There was something appealing in thinking of a character with a secret life that her author knew nothing about. Slipping off while the author's back was turned, to find love in her own way. Showing up just in time to deliver the next bit of dialogue with an innocent face. (171)
Like Sylvia, I like the idea of characters having a secret life outside the written pages on their book. It's very similar to what Jasper Fforde does in his Thursday Next series, and that's probably one reason I enjoy those books so much. The idea of a character being gay and the author not knowing it (or maybe, knowing it but not acknowledging it) is also intriguing. I get the feeling that's why fanfiction was invented. :)

After (SPOILER ALERT!) Allegra's rock-climbing accident:
"When I was driving to the hospital," Sylvia said, "I thought if Allegra was all right I would be the happiest woman in the world. And she was, and I was. But today the sink is backed up and there are roaches in the garage and I don't have the time to deal with any of it. The newspaper is filled with misery and war. Already I have to remind myself to be happy. And you know, if it were the other way, if something had happened to Allegra, I wouldn't have to remind myself to be unhappy. I'd be unhappy for the rest of my life. Why should unhappiness be so much more powerful that happiness?" (227 - 228)
IS unhappiness more powerful than happiness? I'm not really sure. Last year, I wrote about going to visit my dying friend Karen. That visit started out incredibly sad - my sister and I spent the first twenty minutes or so of our visit crying and holding Karen's hand. And then a funny thing happened: one of her daughters started telling anecdotes about when we were younger. Before you knew it, we were all laughing and sharing memories. By the time we left, I was still sad about Karen. But I was happy, because I got a chance to say goodbye - something not everyone is lucky enough to get - and because I have 27 years worth of happy memories to look back on, rather than one really sad day. I think it's all a matter of perspective. I don't necessarily choose to always look on the bright side of life (Lord knows, I can be the world's best worrier when I want to be), but more often than not, happy (or at least content) is my default mood setting.

This book gave me quite a lot to think about! I have to confess that I saw the movie first, but the book is just different enough that I can enjoy both without comparing them to each other. The third-person limited omniscient narration was unusual; it was always "our" book club and "we" thought this, but never "I," which took some getting used to. I loved the characters, and they way they all had bits of Austen in their lives - Prudie-as-Mrs. Elton was my favorite - because it seemed very organic and believable. The idea of everyone having a private Austen is interesting; mine's a cross between Jocelyn's unmarried romantic and Bernadette's comic genius.

I actually didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did because a) I'm very protective of Miss Austen (I think I embarrassed my BFF at a Becoming Jane sneak preview after talking loudly about how WRONG the movie was) and b) I read another of Karen Joy Fowler's books - The Sweetheart Season - several years ago, and didn't remember liking it much. The Jane Austen Book Club was a pleasant surprise, and I highly recommend it, even if you're unfamiliar with Austen's novels. In all likelihood, reading this will make you want to read them.

If you've reviewed this book on your blog, leave a link in the comments and I'll post it here. I'm eager to hear other thoughts.


Anonymous said...

One of the things I loved about this book was the description of dogs. She really knew her canine friends.

Ruth said...

I've been wondering about this book since I rented (and loved!) the movie. I'll definitely have to check it out. Thanks for the great review!

Shantell said...

Thanks for writing this.