Nothing ever moves in a straight line in Karen Joy Fowler’s fiction, and in The Jane Austen Book Club, the complex dance of modern love has never been so devious or so much fun.
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 an eye for the frailties of human behavior and an 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.
1. The author opens the novel with a quote from Jane Austen, part of which reads, “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure.” Do you agree with this sentiment? Why do you think the author chooses to open the novel with this quote? How might this statement apply to each of the characters in the book?
2. When the group is first being formed, Bernadette suggests that it should consist exclusively of women: “The dynamic changes with men. They pontificate rather than communicate. They talk more than their share.” (page 3). What do you think of her statement? How does Grigg affect the group’s dynamic? How would things have been different without him?
3. While the group is reading Sense and Sensibility and discussing Mrs. Dashwood, Sylvia mentions that “the problems of older women don’t interest most writers” (page 46) and is thrilled that Austen seems to care. Do you agree with this, that most writers aren’t interested in older women? What about society in general? How does Fowler approach older women? Later, Prudie says that “An older man can still fall in love. An older woman better not.” (page 47) Do you agree? How does Fowler deal with this issue?
4. On page 228 Sylvia asks, “Why should unhappiness be so much more powerful than happiness?” How would you answer her? How does each character find her/his own happiness in the novel?
5. The book club meets from March through August. How does the group change over these six months? “I always like to know how a story ends,” Bernadette says on page 199. How do you think this story ends (the “epilogue to the epilogue”)? Does Bernadette have a happy marriage with Senor Obando? Do Allegra and Corinne stay together? How about Jocelyn and Grigg? Daniel and Sylvia?
6. At the end of the novel, Jocelyn reluctantly agrees to read some science fiction, including the work of Ursula Le Guin, and really likes it. What other authors do you think the group might like? Although they would have to change the name of their group, what author would you suggest for the Central Valley/River City all-Jane-Austen-all-the-time book club to read next? What do you suggest for your own group?
7. If you’re new to Jane Austen, are you now interested in reading her work? Based on what you’ve learned from Karen Joy Fowler, which novel would you go to first? If you are already a “dedicated Janeite,” how has reading The Jane Austen Book Club made you feel about your favorite author? How would you describe your own “private Austen”? What novel would you recommend to first-time readers of Austen?