Saturday 30 July 2011

DOUBLE REVIEW: The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (3.5*)


The Jane Austen Book Club is one of those novels that might be dismissed as 'chick lit' but actually turns out to be a sharp, witty, intelligent and well-written book that, whilst certainly a light read, is also one to be deliciously savoured.

The premise is simple but original. A group of friends start a book club. Not just any book club, but, in light of their collective issues with modern life, an 'All-Jane-Austen-All-The-Time' book club. Six people, six books, with each of the group hosting the meeting for their chosen novel. The chapters are structured around these meetings, so the first chapter is 'MARCH, CHAPTER 1... in which we gather at Jocelyn's to discuss Emma', and so on. In each chapter the host's history and personality is more fully explored, the month's novel is discussed (but never so much that it bores or alienates the reader), and at the same time the other characters are lightly threaded through the background to keep the overall plot evolving.

As well as showcasing Austen's novels, this is very much a character piece. Each of the six book club members are entirely individual and it makes for much more interesting and amusing reading. Bernadette is a serial wife, rather eccentric and flamboyant, with a liking for yoga and Pride and Prejudice. Loyal Sylvia works at the library and has just had her life shattered by her husband Daniel's confession that he is leaving her for another woman. Her beautiful daughter Allegra is constantly doing daring things - not always without paying the price - and is getting over a devastating betrayal by her ex-girlfriend Corinne. Jocelyn is a dominant terminal singleton, afraid of being hurt and making up for it by matchmaking everyone else. Prudie is a rather artificial, self-conscious young French teacher who doesn't quite know how to interact with other people without coming across all wrong. And Grigg, poor Grigg, a sci-fi fan and Austen virgin brought into the group by Jocelyn as a distraction for Sylvia, is entirely out of his depth and trying not to make an idiot of himself. The novel is narrated by a kind of all-seeing other, one who describes each character in the third person but frequently mentions 'us' and 'we'; part of the fun of the reading is trying to work out which of the six, if any, might be telling the story.

Thus characters are strengthened, love blossoms and dies and blooms again, and the story goes on. Of course it ends with optimism, hope and a well-timed bit of Austen wisdom. To my surprise, at the end of the book Fowler has also added some little extras which add to the reading experience - some contemporary and modern literary criticism of Austen and her novels, a brief summary of each of the books (handy for those not familiar with all of the works, or those who might want a quick refresher on characters and plots), and at the VERY end, a funny set of 'Questions for Discussion' on Austen AND Fowler presented by each of the six book club members.

Clearly a liking for Jane Austen helps when reading this novel, but ultimately there is nothing in here that should put off a less knowledgeable reader, particularly given the handy summaries at the back (which I wish I'd noticed earlier, I must admit). It is a scrumptious book - funny, romantic, inspiring and positive - and definitely one I'd like to read again sometime.


This is a great ensemble piece with a fantastic cast and a good sense of humour!  I can never not be in the mood for such an all-round charming movie - it offers up romance, books, heartbreak, humour, and oh yeah, more books... 

Like the book, the movie is divided into sections by month and Austen novel, with each new section heralded by a yummy montage of the characters reading that month's book.  These mini montages are one of my favourite things about the film!  Whether it's Bernadette reading in the local coffee shop, Jocelyn relaxing on the porch or poor old Grigg poring over his huge all-in-one collection while tucking into an enormous sandwich, they make me want to run and pick up a book, right now!

I think one of the reasons I like the movie better than the book is the fact that it doesn't dwell too much on the characters' back stories.  Essential details are explained, of course, like the fact that Jocelyn and Sylvia have been friends since childhood and that Jocelyn used to date Sylvia's husband as a girl, but the fun of the book club never gets weighed down by their history.  In the book, for example, there is a long description of Grigg's experiences at a party as a boy, which really doesn't add anything to the story or to his character.  Here the characters and their links to the novels they're discussing are more clearly defined, and the focus remains mostly on the present and, naturally, on the books.

Ultimately, I just think the film takes everything the book did and does it better.  It aligns the characters' experiences with the six Austen novels, it offers humour and romance, it knocks ten years off Allegra's age (thus broadening its appeal down an extra generation, I think), it has plenty of bookish chatter, and most importantly of all, I never ever get to the end without having a big smile plastered across my face.  That's movie love, folks! 

Kathy Baker (Bernadette), Emily Blunt (Prudie), Amy Brenneman (Sylvia), Maggie Grace (Allegra), Maria Bello (Jocelyn) and Hugh Dancy (Grigg)