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The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler


Rating: (Recommended)


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Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, provides very satisfying reading for many reasons. She structures the book based on the six Austen novels, and populates the book club with six members, five women and a man (just about the right proportion of Austen readers, in my humble opinion). Fowler then proceeds to present just enough about her characters and the Austen characters to link them in ways similar to those a book club would do as the relationships from fiction resonate with the real world. Fowler’s love of Austen is clear through this book, her understanding of modern relationships deep and revealing, and her mastery of modern manners superb. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Three, pp. 81-89:

in which we read Mansfield Park with Prudie


Her perfect security in such a téte-a-téte. . . was unspeakably welcome to a mind which had seldom known a pause in its alarms or embarrassments. (Mansfield Park)



           Prudie and Jocelyn had met two years before, at a Sunday matinee of Mansfield Park. Jocelyn was sitting in the row behind Prudie when the woman to Prudie’s left began a whispered monologue to a friend about high jinks at some local riding stable. Someone was sleeping with one of the farriers—a real cowboy type, boots and blue jeans and a charm that seemed un­studied, but anyone who could gentle horses knew perfectly well how to get a woman into bed. The horses, of course, were the ones to suffer. Rajah was not eating at all. “Like he thinks he’s hers, the woman said, “3ust because I let her ride him from time to time.


Prudie was pretty sure this was about tile horse. She hadn’t spoken up. She sat and seethed over her Red Vines and thought about moving, hut only if it could be done without an implied ac­cusation; she was, ask anyone, courteous to a fault. She was just beginning to take an unwelcome and distracting interest in Ra­jah’s appetite when Jocelyn leaned forward. “Go gossip in the lobby,” Jocelyn said. You could tell that she was not a woman to be trifled with. Send her to deal with your cowboy types. Send her to feed your oh-so-sensitive horses.


“Excuse me,” the woman responded resentfully. “Like your movie is so much more important than my real life.” But she fell silent, and Prudie didn’t really care that she was offended, an of­fended silence being just as silent as a flattered one. This silence lasted the whole movie, which was all that mattered. The gos­sipers left at the credits, hut the true Janeite was truly gracious, and stayed for the final chord, the white screen. Prudie knew without looking that Jocelyn would still be there when she turned to thank her.


They talked more as they threaded through the seats. Jocelyn turned out to like fiddling about with the original story no better than Prudie did. The great thing about books was the solidity of the written word. You might change and your reading might change as a result, but the book remained whatever it had always been. A good book was surprising the first time through, less so the second.


The movies, as everyone knew, had no respect for this. All the characters had been altered-——Fanny’s horrid aunt Mrs. Norris was diminished simply by lack of screen time; her uncle Mr. Bertram, a hero in the book, was now accused of slave—dealing and sexual predations; and all the rest were portrayed in broad strokes or reinvented. Most provocative was the amalgamation of Fanny with Austen herself, which scraped oddly at times, as the two were nothing alike—Fanny so shrinking and Austen so playful. What resulted was a character who thought and spoke like Jane, but acted and reacted like Fanny. It made no sense.


Not that you couldn’t understand the screenwriter’s motivation. No one loved Austen more than Prudie, ask anyone. But even Prudie found the character of Fanny Price hard going. Fanny was the prig in your first-grade class who never, ever mis­behaved and who told the teacher when anyone else did. How to keep the movie audience from loathing her? While Austen, by some accounts, had been quite a flirt, full of life and charm. More like Mansfield’s villainous Mary Crawford.


So Austen had given Mary all her own wit and sparkle, and none of it to Fanny. Prudie had always wondered why, then, not only Fanny but also Austen seemed to dislike Mary so much.


Saying all this took time. Prudie and Jocelyn stopped at the Cafe Roma to have a cup of coffee together and examine their re­sponses more minutely. Dean, Prudie’s husband, left them there and went home to reappraise the movie in solitude while catch­ing the second half of the 49er—Viking game.


On her first reading, Mansfleld Park had been Prudie’s least fa­vorite of the six novels. Her opinion had improved over the years. So much so that when Sylvia picked it for May, Prudie vol­unteered to host the discussion, even though no one is busier than a high school teacher in May.


She expected a lively exchange and had so much to say herself, she’d been filling index cards for several days in order to re­member it all. Prudie was a great believer in organization, a nat­ural Girl Scout. She had lists of things to be cleaned, things to be cooked, things to be said. She was serious about her hosting. With power—responsibility.

But the day began, ominously, with something unexpected. She appeared to have picked up a virus in her e-mail. There was a note from her mother: “Missing my darling. Thinking of corn­ing for a visit.” But then there were two more notes that had her mothers return address plus attachments, when her mother hadn’t mastered attachments yet. The e-mails themselves read, “Here is a powful tool. I hope you will like,” and “Here is some­thing you maybe enjoy.” The identical “powful tool” message came again in another e-mail. This one seemed to be from Susan in the attendance office.


Prudie had planned to send out a reminder that, because of the heat, the book club would meet at eight instead of seven-thirty that night, hut she didn’t wish to risk spreading the infec­tion. She shut down without even answering her mother’s note.


The predicted temperature for the day was a hundred six. This, too, was bad news. Prudie had planned to serve a compote, but no one was going to touch anything hot. She’d better stop by the store after work and get some fruit for a sherbet. Maybe root beer floats. Easy, hut fun!


Dean lurched out of bed just in time to kiss her good-bye. He was wearing nothing but a T-shirt, which was a good look for him, and how many men could you say that about? Dean had been staying up at night to watch soccer. He was in training for the World Cup, for those games that would soon he shown live from whatever time zone Japan and Korea occupied. “I’ll he late today, he told her. He worked in an insurance office.


“I’ve got book club.”


“Which book?”


Mansfield Park.


“I guess I’ll skip that one,” Dean said. “Maybe rent the movie.”

“You’ve already been to the movie,” Prudie answered. She was a tiny hit distressed. They’d been to it together. How could he not remember? Only then did she see that he was teasing her. It was a measure of how distracted she was, because she was usu­ally quick to catch a joke. Anyone could tell you that.


“How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chrono­logical order of the kings of England, with the dates of their

accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!”

“… and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

(Mansfield Park)


Prudie gave her third-period students a chapter of Le Petit Prince to translate—”La seconde planéte était habitée par un vani­teux”—and took a seat in the hack of the classroom to finalize her notes for book club. (The secret to teaching was to place yourself where you could see them but they couldn’t see you. Arid nothing was more deadly than the reverse. Chalkboards were for chumps.)


It was already way too hot. The air was still, with an odor faintly locker-room. Prudie’s neck was streaked with sweat. Her dress was fastened onto her hack, hut her fingers slid on the pen. The so-called temporary buildings (they would last no longer than Shakespeare’s plays) in which she taught had no air-conditioning. It was hard to keep the students’ attention in May. It was always hard to keep the students’ attention. The temperature made it impossible. Prudie looked about the room and saw several of them wilted over their desks, limp as old let­tuce leaves.


She saw little sign of work in progress. Instead the students slept or whispered among themselves or stared out the windows.

In the parking lot, hot air billowed queasily over the hoods of cars. Lisa Streit had her hair in her face and her work in her lap. There was something especially brittle about her today, the aura of the recent dumpee. She’d been dating a senior and, Prudie had no doubt, pressured daily to give it up to him. Prudie hoped she’d been dumped because she hadn’t done so rather than dumped because she had. Lisa was a sweet girl who wanted to he liked by everyone. With luck she would survive until college, when being likable became a plausible path to that. Trey Norton said some­thing low and nasty, and everyone who could hear him laughed. If Prudie rose to go see, she believed, she’d find Elijah Wallace and Katy Singh playing hangman. Elijah was probably gay, hut neither he nor Katy knew it yet. It was too much to hope the se­cret word would be French.


In fact, why bother? Why bother to send teenagers to school at all? Their minds were so clogged with hormones they couldn’t possibly learn a complex system like calculus or chemistry, much less the wild tangle of a foreign language. Why put everyone to the aggravation of making them try? Prudie thought that she could just do the rest of it—watch them for signs of suicide or weapons or pregnancy or drug addiction or sexual abuse—hut asking her to teach them French at the same time was really too much.


There were days when just the sight of fresh, bright acne or badly applied mascara or the raw, infected skin around a brand-new piercing touched Prudie deeply. Most of the students were far more beautiful than they would ever realize. (There were also days when adolescents seemed like an infestation in her other­wise comfortable life. Often these were the same days.)


Trey Norton, on the other hand, was beautiful and knew it— wounded eyes, slouched clothes, heavy, swinging walk. Beauté du diable. “New dress?” he’d asked Prudie while taking his seat today. He’d looked her over, and his open assessment was both unsettling and infuriating. Prudie certainly knew how to dress professionally. If she was exposing more skin than usual, that was because it was going to be a hundred-fucking-six degrees. Was she supposed to wear a suit? “Hot,” he’d said.


He was angling for a better grade than he deserved, and Prudie was just barely too old to be taken in. She wished she were old enough to be impervious. In her late twenties, suddenly, unnervingly, she found herself wishing to sleep with nearly every man she saw.


The explanation could he only chemical, because Prudie was not that sort of woman. Here at school every breath she took was a soup of adolescent pheromones. Three years of concentrated daily exposure—how could this not have an effect?


She’d tried to defuse such thoughts by turning them medici­nally, as needed, to Austen. Laces and bonnets. Country lanes and country dances. Shaded estates with pleasant prospects. But the strategy had backfired. Now, often as not, when she thought of whist, sex came also to mind. From time to time she imagined bringing all this up in the teachers’ lounge. “Do you ever find yourself. . .“ she would begin. (As if!)


She’d actually been sexually steadier her first time through high school, a fact that could only dismay her now. There was nothing about those years to remember with satisfaction. She had grown early and by sixth grade was far too tall. “They’ll catch up,” her mother had told her (without being asked, that’s how obvious the problem was). And she was perfectly right. When Prudie graduated, most of the boys had topped her by a couple of inches at least.


What her mother didn’t know, or didn’t say, was how little this would matter by the time it happened. In the feudal fiefdom of school, rank was determined early. You could change your hair and clothes. You could, having learned your lesson, not write a paper on Julius Caesar entirely in iambic pentameter, or you could not tell anyone if you did. You could switch to contact lenses, compensate for your braininess by not doing your home­work. Every boy in the school could grow twelve inches. The sun could go fucking nova. And you’d still he the same grotesque you’d always been.


Meanwhile, at restaurants, the beach, the movies, men who should have been looking at her mother began to look at Prudie instead. They brushed past her in the grocery store, deliberately grazing her breasts. They sat too close on the bus, let their legs fall against her at the movies. Old men in their thirties whistled when she walked by. Prudie was mortified, and this appeared to he the point; the more mortified she became, the more pleased the men seemed to be. The first time a boy asked to kiss her (in college) she’d thought he was making fun of her.


So Prudie was not pretty and she was not popular. There was no reason she couldn’t have been nice. Instead, to bolster her so­cial position at school, she’d sometimes joined in when the true outcasts were given their daily dose of torment. She’d seen this as a diversionary tactic at the time, shameful hut necessary. Now it was unbearable to remember. Could she have really been so cruel? Someone else perhaps had tripped Megan Stahl on the as­phalt and kicked her hooks away. Megan Stahl, Prudie could now see, had probably been slightly retarded as well as grind­ingly poor.


As a teacher Prudie watched out for such children, did her best for them. (But what could a teacher do? No doubt she made things worse as often as she made them better.) This atonement must have been the real reason she’d chosen the career, although at the time it had seemed to be about loving France and having no inclination for actual scholarship. Probably every high school teacher arrived with scores to settle, scales to tip.


Precious little in Mansfield Park supported the possibility of fundamental reform. “Character is set early.” Prudie wrote this on a notecard, followed it with examples: Henry Crawford, the rake, improves temporarily, but can’t sustain it. Aunt Norris and cousin Maria are, throughout the book, as steadfast in their mean­ness and their sin as Fanny and cousin Edmund are in their pro­priety. Only cousin Tom, after a brush with death and at the very, very end of the book, manages to amend.


It was enough to give Prudie hope. Perhaps she was not as horrible as she feared. Perhaps she was not beyond forgiveness, even from Jane.


But at the very moment she thought this, her fingers, slipping up and down her pen, put her in mind of something decidedly, unforgivably un-Austenish. She looked up and found that Trey Norton had swung about, was watching her. This was no sur­prise. Trey was as sensitive to any lewd thought as a dowser to water. He smiled at her, and it was such a smile as no boy should give his high school teacher. (Or no high school teacher should attribute such things to the mere act of baring one’s teeth. My bad, Jane. Pardonnez-moi.)


“Do you need something, Trey?” Prudie asked. She dropped the pen, wiped her hands on her skirt.


“You know what I need,” he answered. Paused a deliberate moment. Held his work up.


She rose to go see, but the bell rang. Allez-vous en!” Prudie said playfully, and Trey was the first on his feet, the first out the door. The other students gathered their papers, their binders, their books. Went off to sleep in someone else’s class.

Teachers may find a particular kinship with Prudie, but all readers will find appealing characters on the pages of The Jane Austen Book Club, and will enjoy Fowler’s fine writing.

Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Jane Austen Book Club.htm


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