Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Jane Austen Book Club

by Karen Joy Fowler. Maybe you've heard of it? It was just released as a major motion picture. Those of you who've been reading the blog for a while know my stance on screen adaptations so I read the book this weekend. I have not DISLIKED a book so much since 6th grade when Mr. Percy ruined by spring break by forcing me to wade through 300 pages of politcally motivated talking bunnies. There is not enough I can say about how much I did not enjoy this book, but here is a start.

A Little to the Left
If I were in a ballroom filled with hundreds of people and this author, I feel almost certain I would not meet another person who so totally disagrees with my personal view of the world. This book is extremely politically "correct". The characters are a smattering of mid-20's to mid-60's women, only one of whom needs a man- and this is passed off as acceptable because she and her husband are a mixed latina-caucasian marriage. One woman is homosexual and the author states that this is due to "a genetic code" as if this is a proven fact. The only main character who is a man is made pc by the emasculinization of him in a flashback to his childhood in which he is for the hundredth time helpless and he comes to the realization that he will rely on his big sisters to rescue him in any situation for the rest of his life. The author ends the account with the statement that, "no one who'd known Grigg since infancy could have doubted he was born to be a heroine." (Italics added.) This leaves the question of his sexual orientation dubious until the end of the book when he hooks up with one of the women.

Of the other two men who appear in the book, one is the evil-husband-who-leaves, and the other is the perfect husband who is not really wanted or needed but is a nice thing to have. Yuck. To think there are all these men in this country who experienced such a serious lapse in judgement and had the audacity to be born white, masculine men. The nerve. Let's punish them.

Also, the author is preachy about other leftist issues including such things as the environment. I quote, "A few shells were washed over at the water's edge, small and perfect, but everyone was too ecologically well behaved to pick these up." (Italics added.) Would someone please mind telling me when it became bad for the environment to pick up seashells at the beach?

Literally Speaking
For those of you my friends who stand far to the left of me and Dr. Laura, I want to explain why this book is still garbage even if you share the author's political opinions. First of all, there is almost no plot. None.

Second of all, the women are snotty, pretentious, and clearly think they are superior to men. There is a scene in the book in which the characters openly mock a published author at a fundraiser dinner after he comments that, "I don't read much women's stuff. I like a good plot." This is written as a blunder of conversation and the women very unlikeably and condescendingly make him pay for it for the rest of the evening. (It reminded me of Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice when she begins criticizing Elizabeth Bennet's performance at the pianoforte by saying, "I never learned to play the pianoforte, but if I had learnt, I should be a true proficient.")

It is possible that the author may have written the nearly plotless book as a nod to Jane Austen. Many critics contend that nothing happens in her books. I believe this shows great ignorance. So much happens in them that when made into a good movie it has to be six hours long. Not only that, but even holding to the argument that Austen's characters move about very little in their humdrum lives, you still care about them deeply. The author of The Jane Austen Book Club did not achieve this in spite of the enormous effort she put into writing them each a tragic backstory. There is not enough of a now-story for you to care or not care. Their background stories- which take up 3/4 of the book, are for the most part, those moments in our lives that each of us are most ashamed of and which, if given a chance, we would go back and change. They are not very likeable people and as I was reading, I kept hoping that all the unpleasant histories of these people would somehow either be overcome or that they would be better people in the end because of their experiences with the books or each other. Not so. While one or two may have found minimal happiness in spite of their previous experiences, the attention the author gives this is so miniscule in comparison to the long drawn out accounts of misery, that it affords the reader almost no satisfaction at all. The compensation for wading through all their personal garbage is too little to make it worth it. I think the author must be aware of this on some level because at the end of the book one of her characters thinks to herself, "What if you had a happy ending and didn't notice? Sylvia made a mental note. Don't miss the happy ending." It's that obscure.

A couple of the characters use the f-word a lot. (I stopped counting at 11 times.) I suspect that the author was trying to make this a literary device to denote the demarcation between the younger and older generations, but this distinction was unnecessary, distracting, and added nothing to their already established personalities. It was extraneous and offensive.

You all know I am the queen of throwing out random quotations and movie references mid-conversation. And yet, when the author unashamedly steals phrases from Jane Austen, speaking of her characters without giving the credit to Austen by the use of quotation marks or in any other way (e.g.- "It put her in mind of something...", and a hundred other turns of phrase that are period-derived syntax) I found it very grating. I think she did this intentionally to illustrate how much the books permeated the characters' lives, but it came off as contrived and pompous. (Look at me! Look at me! I'm writing like Jane Austen!)

The hands-down most irritating thing about the writing in The Jane Austen Book Club was the perspective it was written from. It is third person omniscient so the narrator knows what everyone is thinking, yet it is written in the first person so the narrator is repeatedly saying, "WE" did this and "WE" thought that. The narrator is never identified as any one of the characters and in the end the best the reader can do is to assume the narrator is some nebulous collective psyche. The other alternative is that the narrator is Jane Austen herself, since she is the only other "person" there who is not one of the main characters- but if that was the intention, it was unclear and presumptuous.

Patricia T O'Connor of The New York Times Book Review said of this book,
"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."

Wow. I don't even know where to start. What a load of crap. Sorry. But it's true. If this not-funny-at-all book is her funniest, pity the reader who's read any of her other work. I am a lover of Jane Austen books and I did not enjoy this at all. The book discussions were minimal and they assumed you have a working knowledge and memory of every single one of the books. Not only that, but the people trail in and out of points they're making as if you, the reader, are expected to be able to finish their thoughts on your own, they are so obvious to the author. Anyone who has not read at least some of the books will be lost during every book discussion the club has. To say "there's no better introduction" to Jane Austen is tantamount to saying, "Hey. I found some old rotton produce at the bottom of the vegetable bin. Let's serve that as the appetizer to all our guests. Then when we bring out the main course they will be REALLY excited to dig in." Please. I hope that nobody anywhere reads this before reading Austen's own works. I would hate to think that they would forever have this book associated with her books. In short, I would not recommend this book to anyone. At all. Ever.


Roger, Tiffany & Michael said...

I consider you my very own book reviewer! If you like it, I like it! If you don't, I probably won't! Keep them coming, I need something fun to read!

I hope your feeling better, and I am sorry to hear about your father in law.

amber said...

haha! I loved the review. Also, this saves me having to read this book, it was on my list but not anymore. Thanks!

Chain Reader said...

I tried to listen to this a while ago and couldn't make it past an hour, for many of the same reasons you've listed. I've been wondering if the movie is any better, but I probably won't waste my time.