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The Jane Austen Book Club

by Karen Joy Fowler

(Viking, £12.99/£6.99, 288pp, hardcover/paperback.)

Review by Gary Couzens

cover scanThere are six Jane Austen novels, and in The Jane Austen Book Club Karen Joy Fowler takes six contemporary Californians who meet once a month to read and discuss each of Austen's novels in turn. At the centre of the group is Jocelyn and also included are her best friend (and newly divorced) Sylvia, Sylvia's lesbian daughter Allegra, French teacher Prudie, and the mysterious Grigg, a friend of Jocelyn's no-one knows about and who is the only man among the six. Each of the six is carrying some emotional baggage and over the six months marriages come under strain and love affairs begin and end.

It's easy to mistake Jane Austen as a romantic writer and many do. After all, her novels are archetypal romantic comedies, with hero and heroine finding each other by the end. But to read them that way is to miss the acid wit and the subtle mockery of the ways of men and women. Austen is far too clear-eyed for sentimentality, too aware of social and financial considerations for her heroines, to be in any way romantic. Karen Joy Fowler is clearly a long-time fan of Austen's and her fourth novel -- based on quite a literary concept for the best-seller it has become -- shares many of the same qualities. Hardcore Janeites will spot many references, but the Austen novice will find plenty to enjoy.

Fowler is better known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, though often at the more literary, slipstream end of the genre, where it overlaps with mainstream fiction. (A good case in point is her Nebula-winning short story "What I Didn't See", subject to much debate about whether it was SF or fantasy at all, despite being published online at Scifiction. The title itself is a literary allusion, to James Tiptree Jr's feminist SF classic "The Women Men Don't See". Read the story -- indeed, both stories -- and enjoy, regardless of labels.) The Jane Austen Book Club is not SF, but it does draw on Fowler's experience within the genre: there's a hilarious scene set at a SF convention. The book ends with an appendix, or "Reader's Guide", consisting of synopses of the six Austen novels, comments on them by Austen and others, and "questions for discussion". The latter include "Many science fiction readers also love Austen. Why do you think this is true? Do you think many Austen readers love science fiction?"

The Jane Austen Book Club is a subtle, beautifully written and perceptive novel, laced throughout with a dry wit of which Austen would have approved. The fact that it is on the best-seller lists -- not to mention the Richard and Judy Book Club -- doesn't mean that Fowler has sold out, rather that stylish and intelligent work can reach a wide audience. And if its success causes some people to check out Fowler's earlier novels Sister Noon, Sarah Canary and The Sweetheart Season, not to mention her superb short fiction (collected in Artificial Things and Black Glass), so much the better.

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