Karen and Jane

Five women and a single man meet for an “all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club” in Karen Joy Fowler’s ingenious fifth novel. As spring turns to summer in a town that sounds a lot like the author’s hometown of Davis, Fowler’s characters read through Austen’s entire oeuvre, book by book, revealing their own bits of pride and prejudice.

Sylvia is uncoupling from a 30-year marriage, while Jocelyn, her best friend and book-club organizer, has sworn off men and has begun breeding dogs. Grigg is convinced no one wants a nice man, and Allegra hasn’t yet decided whether her next lover will be a man or a woman.

Readers savvy to the idea that the real subject of book clubs is not the books but the participants will find The Jane Austen Book Club dishy good fun. Not surprisingly, the members’ comments on Pride and Prejudice or Emma often contain veiled critiques of one another’s lives. Prudie, the club’s youngest member, loves to contradict Grigg’s male-oriented take on Austen, and Jocelyn—who matched up Sylvia with her husband (her new ex-husband)—desperately wants everyone to get along. Reeling from her recent loss, Sylvia cannot take seriously her friend’s notions on coupling—after all, Jocelyn spends her time matching bitches up with their furry mates.

Austen fans will find allusions galore, but the real fun comes from watching Fowler pay homage to the gift “Miss Austen” has for depicting people in conversation, how they say one thing and mean another. Even the most trivial discussions betray assumptions that Fowler’s characters imagine remain invisible to the others. Prudie is forever dropping French phrases into conversation, flattering her own ego while managing to condescend to women three times her age. In portraying himself as a beleaguered man, Grigg broadcasts his loneliness to the gaggle of women. Not surprisingly, someone comes to his rescue.

Because most of the action is filtered through discussions of Austen’s novels, The Jane Austen Book Club becomes a profound and very writerly meditation on the way we interact with books. While some members gut the tomes for their sociological import, others are swept up into the drama and are able to experience that sublime moment of empathizing with the unreal. None of these approaches is the right one, and Fowler is smart not to place a value on any of them. In doing so, she captures the ways in which reading mirrors faith; the text reads us, not the other way around.

It’s remarkable that Fowler squeezes such a nuanced evocation of reading into so tidy a novel. After all, The Jane Austen Book Club is an intensely structured book, with its month-by-month march through Austen’s books, each chapter unveiling yet another club member’s personal story. Each of these vignettes resonates with the book being discussed, and if that’s not enough, the book contains an afterward with questions for discussion suggested by the characters themselves.

This nifty package could seem like gimmickry so easily, but Fowler is too wry and clever a novelist to let that happen. Indeed, she does so terrific a job of bringing her characters to life that Austen’s work falls away like a husk. It’s an impressive feat of homage, this, because Fowler essentially borrows Austen’s great themes (Is marriage a societal prison or romantic pinnacle? Does class actually matter? How much do we need to suffer before finding true love?) and makes them her own. Miss Austen would be proud.