In California’s central valley, five women and one man join to discuss Jane Austen’s novels. Over the six months they get together, marriages are tested, affairs begin, unsuitable arrangements become suitable, and love happens. With her eye for the frailties of human behavior and her ear for the absurdities of social intercourse, Karen Joy Fowler has never been wittier nor her characters more appealing. The result is a delicious dissection of modern relationships.
Dedicated Austenites will delight in unearthing the echoes of Austen that run through the novel, but most readers will simply enjoy the vision and voice that, despite two centuries of separation, unite two great writers of brilliant social comedy.
“This exquisite novel is bigger and more ambitious than it appears… Fowler’s shrewdest, funniest fiction yet, a novel about how we engage with a novel. You don’t have to be a student of Jane Austen to enjoy it, either. . . Lovers of Austen will relish this book, but I envy any reader who comes to it unfamiliar with her. There’s no better introduction.”
—Patrick T. O’Connor, The New York Times Book Review
“Karen Joy Fowler creates a novel that is so winning, so touching, so delicately, slyly witty that admirers of Persuasion and Emma will simply sigh with happiness.”
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World
“Start quoting a few of Fowler’s puckish lines and it becomes damnably difficult to stop. . . The Jane Austen Book Club amounts to a witty meditation on how the books we choose, choose us too.”
—David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
“The Jane Austen Book Club offers a sparkling rumination on the act of reading itself and how beloved books can serve as refuge, self-definition, snobbish barricades against other people or pathways out of the old self to a wider world. [It is] a terrific comic novel about a closed society merrily transforming itself by reading.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s All Things Considered
[Fowler] 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, since Fowler essentially borrows Austen’s great themes…and makes them her own. Miss Austen would be proud.”
—John Freeman, The Denver Post
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 7, 1950
Place of Birth:Bloomington, Indiana
Education:B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974
Read an Excerpt
in which we gather
to discuss Emma
We sat in a circle on Jocelyn's screened porch at dusk, drinking cold sun tea, surrounded by the smell of her twelve acres of fresh-mowed California grass. There was a very pretty view. The sunset had been a spectacular dash of purple, and now the Berryessa mountains were shadowed in the west. Due south in the springtime, but not the summer, was a stream.
"Just listen to the frogs," Jocelyn said. We listened. Apparently, somewhere beneath the clamor of her kennel of barking dogs was a chorus of frogs.
She introduced us all to Grigg. He had brought the Gramercy edition of the complete novels, which suggested that Austen was merely a recent whim. We really could not approve of someone who showed up with an obviously new book, of someone who had the complete novels on his lap when only Emma was under discussion. Whenever he first spoke, whatever he said, one of us would have to put him in his place.
This person would not be Bernadette. Though she'd been the one to request girls only, she had the best heart in the world; we weren't surprised that she was making Grigg welcome. "It's so lovely to see a man taking an interest in Miss Austen," she told him. "Delightful to get the male perspective. We're so pleased that you're here." Bernadette never said anything once if it could be said three times. Sometimes this was annoying, but mostly it was restful. When she'd arrived, she seemed to have a large bat hanging over her ear. It was just a leaf, and Jocelyn removed it as they hugged.
Jocelyn had two portable heaters going, and the porch hummed cozily. There were Indian rugs and Spanish-tile floors of a red that might hide dog hair, depending on the breed. There were porcelain lamps in the shape of ginger jars, round and Oriental, and with none of the usual dust on the bulbs, because it was Jocelyn's house. The lamps were on timers. When it was sufficiently dark out, at the perfect moment, they would snap on all at once like a choir. This hadn't happened yet, but we were looking forward to it. Maybe someone would be saying something brilliant.
The only wall held a row of photographs-Jocelyn's dynasty of Ridgebacks, surrounded by their ribbons and pedigrees. Ridgebacks are a matriarchal breed; it's one of their many attractive features. Put Jocelyn in the alpha position and you have the makings of an advanced civilization.
Queenie of the Serengeti looked down on us, doe eyes and troubled, intelligent brow. It's hard to capture a dog's personality in a photograph; dogs suffer more from the flattening than people do, or cats even. Birds photograph well because their spirits are so guarded, and anyway, often the real subject is the tree. But this was a flattering likeness, and Jocelyn had taken it herself.
Beneath Queenie's picture, her daughter, Sunrise on the Sahara, lay, in the flesh, at our feet. She had only just settled, having spent the first half-hour moving from one of us to the next, puffing hot stagnant-pond smells into our faces, leaving hairs on our pants. She was Jocelyn's favorite, the only dog allowed inside, although she was not valuable, since she suffered from hyperthyroidism and had had to be spayed. It was a shame she wouldn't have puppies, Jocelyn said, for she had the sweetest disposition.
Jocelyn had recently spent more than two thousand dollars on vet bills for Sahara. We were glad to hear this; dog breeding, we'd heard, could make a person cruel and calculating. Jocelyn hoped to continue competing her, though the kennel would derive no benefit; it was just that Sahara missed it so. If her gait could be smoothed out-for Ridgebacks it was all about the gait-she could still show, even if she never won. (But Sahara knew when she'd lost; she became subdued and reflective. Sometimes someone was sleeping with the judge and there was nothing to be done about it.) Sahara's competitive category was Sexually Altered Bitch.
The barking outside ascended into hysteria. Sahara rose and walked stiffly to the screen door, her ridge bristling like a toothbrush.
"Why isn't Knightley more appealing?" Jocelyn began. "He has so many good qualities. Why don't I warm to him?"
We could hardly hear her; she had to repeat herself. The conditions were such, really, that we should have been discussing Jack London. . . .
Most of what we knew about Jocelyn came from Sylvia. Little Jocelyn Morgan and little Sylvia Sanchez had met at a Girl Scout camp when they were eleven years old, and they were fifty-something now. They'd both been in the Chippewa cabin, working on their wood-lore badges. They had to make campfires from teepees of kindling, and then cook over them, and then eat what they'd cooked; the requirement wasn't satisfied unless the Scout cleaned her plate. They had to identify leaves and birds and poisonous mushrooms. As if any one of them would ever eat a mushroom, poisonous or not.
For their final requirement they'd been taken in teams of four to a clearing ten minutes off and left to find their own way back. It wasn't hard, they'd been given a compass and a hint: The dining hall was southwest of them.
Camp lasted four weeks, and every Sunday Jocelyn's parents drove up from the city-three and a half hours-to bring her the Sunday funnies. "Everyone liked her anyway," Sylvia said. This was hard to believe, even for us, and we all liked Jocelyn a ton. "She was attractively ill informed."
Jocelyn's parents adored her so, they couldn't bear to see her unhappy. She'd never been told a story with a sad ending. She knew nothing about DDT or Nazis. She'd been kept out of school during the Cuban missile crisis because her parents didn't want her learning we had enemies.
"It fell to us Chippewas to tell her about communists," said Sylvia. "And child molesters. The Holocaust. Serial killers. Menstruation. Escaped lunatics with hooks for hands. The Bomb. What had happened to the real Chippewas.
"Of course, we didn't have any of it right. What a mash of misinformation we fed her. Still, it was realer than what she got at home. And she was very game, you had to admire her.
"It all came crashing down on the day we had to find our way back to camp. She had this paranoid fantasy that while we were hiking and checking our compass, they were packing up and moving out. That we would come upon the cabin and the dining hall and the latrines, but all the people would be gone. Even more, that there would be dust and spiderwebs and crumbling floorboards. It would be as if the camp had been abandoned for a hundred years. We might have told her too many Twilight Zone plots.
"But here's the weird part. On the last day, her parents came to pick her up, and on the drive back, they told her that they'd gotten divorced over the summer. In fact, she'd been sent off just for this purpose. All those Sunday drives together bringing the funnies, and they couldn't actually stand each other. Her dad was living in a hotel in San Francisco and had been the whole month she was gone. 'I eat all my meals in the hotel restaurant,' he told her. 'I just come down for breakfast and order whatever catches my fancy.' Jocelyn said he made it sound as though that were the only reason he'd moved out, because restaurant eating would be so swell. She felt she'd been traded for shirred eggs."
One day several years later he called her to say he had a touch of the flu. Nothing for her to worry her darling head about. They had tickets to a baseball game, but he didn't think he could make it, he'd have to take a rain check. Go, Giants! It turned out the flu was a heart attack. He didn't get to the hospital until he was already dead.
"No wonder she grew up a bit of a control freak," Sylvia said. With love. Jocelyn and Sylvia had been best friends for more than forty years. . . .
There's no heat with Mr. Knightley," Allegra said. She had a very expressive face, like Lillian Gish in a silent movie. She frowned when she was making a point, had done this since she was a tiny girl. "Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax meet in secret and quarrel with each other and make it up and lie to everyone they know. You believe they're in love because they behave so badly. You can imagine sex. You never feel that with Mr. Knightley." Allegra had a lullaby voice, low, yet penetrating. She was often impatient with us, but her tones were so soothing we usually realized it only afterward.
"That's true," Bernadette agreed. Behind the lenses of her tiny glasses her eyes were round as pebbles. "Emma is always saying how reserved Jane is, even Mr. Knightley says so, and he's so perceptive about everyone. But she's the only one in the whole book"-the lights came on, which made Bernadette jump, but she didn't miss a word for it-"who ever seems desperately in love. Austen says that Emma and Mr. Knightley make an unexceptional marriage." She paused reflectively. "Clearly she approves. I expect the word 'unexceptional' meant something different in Austen's day. Like, nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to set tongues wagging. Neither reaching too high nor stooping too low."
Light poured like milk over the porch. Several large winged insects hurled themselves against the screens, frantic to find it, follow it to the source. This resulted in a series of thumps, some of them loud enough to make Sahara growl.
"No animal passion," said Allegra.
Sahara turned. Animal passion. She had seen things in the kennels. Things that would make your hair stand on end.
"No passion at all." Prudie repeated the word, but pronouncing it as if it were French. Pah-see-ohn. Because she taught French, this wasn't as thoroughly obnoxious as it might have been.
Not that we liked it. The month before, Prudie's beautician had removed most of her eyebrows; it gave her a look of steady surprise. We couldn't wait for this to go away. "Sans passion, amour n'est rien," Prudie said.
"Après moi, le deluge," Bernadette answered, just so Prudie's words wouldn't fall into a silence that might be mistaken for chilly. Bernadette was really too kind sometimes.
Nothing smelly outside. Sahara came away from the screen door. She leaned into Jocelyn, sighing. Then she circled three times, sank, and rested her chin on the gamy toe of Jocelyn's shoe. She was relaxed but alert. Nothing would get to Jocelyn that didn't go through Sahara first.
"If I may." Grigg cleared his throat, held up his hand. "One thing I notice about Emma is that there's a sense of menace." He counted off on his fingers. He wore no ring. "The violent Gypsies. The unexplained pilferings. Jane Fairfax's boat accident. All Mr. Woodhouse's worries. There's a sense of threat hovering on the edges. Casting its shadow."
Prudie spoke quickly and decisively. "But Austen's whole point is that none of those things is real. There is no real threat."
"I'm afraid you've missed the whole point," said Allegra.
Grigg said nothing further. His eyelashes dropped to his cheeks, making his expression hard to read. It fell to Jocelyn as hostess to change the subject.
"I read once that the Emma plot, the humbling of a pretty, self-satisfied girl, is the most popular plot of all time. I think it was Robertson Davies who said so. That this was the one story everyone was bound to enjoy."
What People are Saying About This
"What strikes one first is the voice: robust, sly, witty, elegant, unexpected." — Margot Livesey,The New York Times Book Review
"A luxuriant pleasure!" —Alice Sebold
"Part character study, part social commentary, part literary puzzle, Book Club builds on Fowler's success as an author of highly creative fiction." —The New York Times Book Review
“Karen Joy Fowler creates a novel that is so winning, so touching, so delicately, slyly witty that admirers of Persuasion and Emma will simply sigh with happiness.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World
“Start quoting a few of Fowler’s puckish lines and it becomes damnably difficult to stop. . . The Jane Austen Book Club amounts to a witty meditation on how the books we choose, choose us too.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“The Jane Austen Book Club offers a sparkling rumination on the act of reading itself and how beloved books can serve as refuge, self-definition, snobbish barricades against other people or pathways out of the old self to a wider world. [It is] a terrific comic novel about a closed society merrily transforming itself by reading.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s All Things Considered
"[Fowler] 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, since Fowler essentially borrows
Austen’s great themes…and makes them her own. Miss Austen would be proud.” —The Denver Post
Reading Group Guide
“Real people are really complicated,” says Jocelyn, the founder of the “Central Valley/River City all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club.” And the members of her newly founded book club certainly prove this to be true. Each has a story to tell, and much like an Austen novel, the intricate plots that are their own lives are slowly revealed. There’s Sylvia, Jocelyn’s friend of forty years, who is in the midst of a painful divorce. Her daughter, Allegra, beautiful, vivacious, a “creature of extremes” who finds her thrills through skydiving and rock-climbing but can’t seem to find love. There’s Bernadette, the oldest member at sixty-seven, a woman who has married well, several times at that, and even had a brush with fame, but currently looks disheveled and distracted. Prudie is the only member who’s currently married. She’s a high school French teacher and a great believer in organization, and finds comfort in her lists when life feels overwhelming. Grigg is in his early forties, yet his older sisters still feel protective of him, hoping to rescue him from the legacy of their father. And last, there’s Jocelyn. Never married, she has a keen interest in the happiness of others and is constantly playing matchmaker. In fact, this could be her underlying motivation for inviting Grigg, the only member of the group who’s never before read Austen. Or perhaps she thinks the book club will serve as a distraction for Sylvia. After all, who better to heal one’s pain than Jane Austen?
ABOUT KAREN JOY FOWLER
Karen Joy Fowler, A PEN/Faulkner and Dublin IMPAC nominee, is the author of Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season, Black Glass: Short Fictions, and Sister Noon.
If you liked The Jane Austen Book Club, you might also want to check out our Austen-Mania page.