Are Fowler's Irreproachably Nifty Women for Real?

The Jane Austen Book Club

Are Fowler's Irreproachably Nifty Women for Real?

The Jane Austen Book Club

Are Fowler's Irreproachably Nifty Women for Real?
New books dissected over email.
June 8 2004 12:31 PM

The Jane Austen Book Club

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Dear Meghan,

How I wish I could dissent from your judgment and offer a ringing endorsement of this book! But on Page 2 or so, I wrote in the margins, "This is demo fiction; and I strongly suspect I'm not in the demo." (And, I should add, I don't lie very far outside the demo, as I construe it—I read a lot, I keep plants alive, and when I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. I also don't skin react when someone tweaks a literary classic, and I embrace Clueless for the deathless masterpiece it is turning out to be.) Nonetheless, I think we might start with a helpful distinction: the difference between fiction by a person of a certain demographic and fiction for people of a certain demographic. When readers start giving each other the high-hat about what they like and why—and more virulently, about what should be taught and why—a noble aspiration (to round out the canon with the unwhite, the unmale, and even sometimes the undead) gets easily confused with a base aspiration: to market to people on the basis of what we might call their census identity, as women, African-American, young adult, etc. I was delighted to be reading a book from the point of view of middle-aged, bookwormy women; I started to run out of gas, and early, when it became clear it was targeted, like the old International Coffee ads, pretty exclusively to middle-aged, bookwormy women.

That said, my head starts spinning when I read the reactions the book has received thus far. No one else seems to agree with me. (You, dear interlocutor, have thrown me a lifeline. The good news here is, we can speak our minds freely and not make a dent in the sales of this thing, which is flying off the shelves.) It mystifies me, Meghan, how the invocation of Austen as literary precedent for a pop novel doesn't make people more tetchy and judgmental, as opposed to less so. Think of how primly the members of Fowler's reading group police each other's comments about Austen for evidence of the slightest heresy. What would they make of this book, I kept wondering? One inevitable defense of The Jane Austen Book Club is that, as in Austen's work, its world is tightly circumscribed; the action small; and the emotions well-contained. In other words, the book is a subtle, but if you get it, exquisite pleasure. But why not go a step further and point out how unlike Austen the book is, with its weakly drawn characters and conspicuous lack of irony? For every pretty good zinger ("Nothing disturbed her peace less than the sound of her own voice," said of Bernadette) there are several misfires. I'm curious if you had the same response, but I found ages and social class almost impossible to keep straight here: Everyone seemed to be a generic 51 and in a generic middle quintile income-wise, supporting themselves by doing something irreproachably nifty. (Jocelyn used to manage accounts for a small vineyard; now she runs her own kennel. Sylvia's daughter Allegra "sold things in stores online, and at craft fairs. Her current project was to collect damaged jewelry at flea markets. ..." etc., etc.)

I'll get to Grigg, and the book's other vaguely male-like characters, tomorrow. I thought I'd start in with the use of the first person plural, which I agree is the most striking formal element of the book. It reminded me of The Virgin Suicides, which uses a disembodied "We" to great effect, to convey the gossipy undercurrents of a suburban Michigan town *. Here I thought it played to the book's weakness, which is its habit of converting everyone into the same fiftysomething spinster. Which brings up a delicate question: Meghan, didn't you think it was interesting that the book's one young, lusty firebrand, Allegra, is a lesbian? As if even the implied presence of active male sexuality would somehow destroy the book's effect? There's an absolutely terrific episode, in which high-school teacher Prudie (how easily Fowler lets us forget she's a young woman, by giving her that silly, Golden Girl name) is the object of a shameless flirtation by one of her students. ("Trey Norton ... was beautiful and knew it—wounded eyes, slouched clothes, heavy, swinging walk. Beaute du diable. 'New dress?' he'd asked Prudie while taking his seat today.") Ooh la la—more! More! But alas, the crone in her (or is it in Fowler?) wins out, and the devilishly beautiful Trey Norton is dropped for a dreary and needlessly protracted flashback about how her mother psychologically tortured her.

Anyhow, I'd like to end with the quote that summed up the book for me, and a question. Here is the quote.

"We had, most of us, also lost our mothers. We spent a moment missing them. The sun was blooming rosily in the west. The trees were in full leaf. The air was bright and soft and laced with the smells of grass, of coffee, of melted Brie. How our mothers would have loved it!"

Here is the question: Is this the bathetic, Windham Hill mishy-mosh I think it is? Or is it brilliantly satiric writing, of the quality of, say, the Onion?

Steve

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Correction, June 9, 2004: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to Long Island as the setting of The Virgin Suicides, not suburban Michigan. Return to the corrected sentence.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor. Stephen Metcalf is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.