Is This Season's Clueless All It's Cracked Up To Be?

The Jane Austen Book Club

Is This Season's Clueless All It's Cracked Up To Be?

The Jane Austen Book Club

Is This Season's Clueless All It's Cracked Up To Be?
New books dissected over email.
June 8 2004 9:02 AM

The Jane Austen Book Club

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Dear Steve,

So it seems Karen Joy Fowler has pulled off the literary coup of the season. On first glance, The Jane Austen Book Club, her new novel—a straight-up romantic comedy presented as a postmodern "cotillion" about a group of six people talking about Austen—seems "so craftily designed … to appeal to smart, middle-aged, book-buying women that one regards its demographic precision cynically," as the Christian Science Monitor put it. Yet it has also captured the skeptical hearts and pens of critics across the nation—including the male critics who infrequently stoop to sniff the pages of commercial women's fiction. "Wonderful," Michael Dirda enthused in the Washington Post; "I'm sorry to report that it's delightful," Ron Charles concluded in the Christian Science Monitor; "a witty meditation," David Kipen raved in the San Francisco Chronicle. And so on.

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All of which makes me feel like a curmudgeon. For I confess I'm not yet a convert to the Jane Austen Book Club Fan Club. Am I missing something, Steve? Or were all these critics perhaps a victim of the Austen effect—which turns all remakes (Clueless, Bridget Jones's Diary) into gilded commercial and critical successes?

First, let me give the author her due. The book is plenty witty, and full of resonances and parallels and in-jokes that any reader of Austen will appreciate. (As when Jocelyn, the fiftysomething unmarried dog-breeder, hosts Emma at her house, and is so caught up in setting Sylvia up with Grigg, the sole man in the group, that she fails to spot the romance under her own nose.) And the premise is playfully self-aware: Over the course of nine months, five women and one man—ranging in age from their late 20s to early 60s—meet every month or so in California's Central Valley to discuss a new Jane Austen book. The entire thing is annotated by a reader's guide including plot synopses of Austen's novel and questions for us, Fowler's readers. Like Austen, Fowler can be hilarious. The book is peppered with tart, adroit observations about the highly ritualized inner sanctum of priggishness that is—or can be—the book club. Take, for example, the way the women bridle when the youngest, a schoolteacher named Prudie, casually refers to Austen as "Jane": "We exchanged secret looks. Jane … That was more intimate, surely, than Miss Austen would wish."

The most striking formal element is the novel's use of the first-person plural narrator—which we should address. It's as if the six characters have merged into the collective spirit of the book group. Or is it that one of the characters is narrating all this—unreliably—through the group's eyes? To my mind, this isn't a simple question to answer, and I think that both the New York Times and the Village Voice reviews misread the book here. Whatever the case, the tactic seems fittingly Austenian; the "We raised our eyebrows" tack allows Fowler to indulge in the kind of collective censoriousness Austen puts to great use in Pride and Prejudice.

But ultimately the collective dismissals and games of literary ones-upmanship—and Fowler's constant tweaking of all this snobbery—grew tiresome, I thought. Take when Grigg is censored for suggesting that today Austen might be writing a sitcom called "The Elinor Show" instead of Sense and Sensibility. The women in the book group recoil—"It was all very well to point out fairy tale themes … But 'The Elinor Show'!" How lowbrow of him!

This is where the book and I part ways. For where the wit of Jane Austen has for partner the perfection of her plot, the wit of Karen Joy Fowler has for partner a coy cutesiness. Austen's wit diagnosed and dismantled the country gentry and all those who would be part of it—a broad social milieu. Fowler puckishly proposes that a narrower stratum of American culture, the book club (and the culture of the would-be writer) may be much like the British country gentry in its judgmental, supercilious, highly scripted codes. She's very funny about this—and totally dead-on about the pieties of workshops—but her target is sometimes smaller than her ambition or, sadly, her talent. The book misses countless narrative opportunities because Fowler is rushing off in search of the next Austen joke. Think how much more Fowler could have done with the fundraiser at the Sacramento Public Library, for instance—a spin-off of the ball in Pride and Prejudice. Instead of dramatizing (and deepening) the fullest ironies of her microcosm, as Austen would have, Fowler sticks to winsome witticisms, poking fun at the mystery writer who's sitting at the table with Bernadette, and who says, self-seriously, that he has a "magpie motif" in all his books. ("I use them for portent as well as theme.") The jokes begin to wear thin without the sturdier foundations of character. I wondered what was really at stake here.

Did you have a better idea? What do you make of Grigg, the representative male of Fowler's book club? Is our appetite for ironic romantic comedy now such that any imitator of Austen can simply do no wrong? And, of course, W.W.J.T.? (That's "What would Jane think?")

Yours,
Meghan

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.