Two and a half years ago I read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, and I am surprised that I didn’t write a review of it at the time. I no longer remember why.
Perhaps I was waiting for the movie — though how could I have ever known that there even was going to be a movie? Anyway, Barbara and I just watched the movie on DVD, so now I can review both at once. Of course I violated my usual principle that it’s better to see the movie before reading the book, but then again that’s usually impossible, given the relative schedules of publishing novels and making movies.
Anyway, the book is worth reading, and the movie is worth seeing — though I’m sure that both would have been significantly enhanced if I were more familiar with Austen’s work. Unfortunately my English Lit background is insufficient, as I’ve read no Austen other than Pride and Prejudice and a bit of Emma. This deficiency doesn’t matter so much in the actual book club scenes, but it’s glaring in the overall structure of the book and movie, where the big concept is that these characters’ lives are replaying the interactions among various Austen characters. I think Fowler must have created a one-to-one match between Austen’s novels and the modern characters, though it’s hard to tell for sure. Each member of the book club hosts a discussion of a different novel, and I suspect that her (or in one case his) life is reflecting that novel. Six novels, six characters.
The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book, although the 30-month gap makes it hard for me to remember details. One glaring difference is that the character Allegra is explicitly 30 in the book but is in her early 20s in the movie — a distinction that wouldn’t always make a difference but definitely does in the case of Jane Austen. The actress who played her, Maggie Grace, was 23 when the film was made, enhancing the impression of youth. Prudie, a French teacher, is the youngest in the book (28) but seems older in the movie — although a male student’s crush on her suggests that maybe she isn’t, and the actress portraying her, Emily Blunt, was only 24 at the time. She is a rather annoying character in many years, although she’s the subject of an excellent line: in response to a suggestion that Prudie should stop speaking French, Jocelyn says, “Or at least go to France, where it would be less noticeable.” Actually, that’s the narrator’s line in the book, but Jocelyn’s line in the movie, where there is no narrator. Also, the phrase “at least” was inserted in the movie; I have no idea why. The student with the crush on Prudie causes her to say one of the best lines in the movie — one that I don’t think was in the book at all: “He looks at me like he’s the spoon, and I’m this dish of ice cream.”
What’s unsurprising is that the one male lead, Grigg, is the only book club member who is not already familiar with Austen (though at least he’s enthusiastic about Ursula LeGuin). Male members of book clubs are already rare enough; they would be rare to the point of extinction when a book club is devoted to Jane Austen. The Grigg of the novel is carefully reproduced in the movie, providing a useful foil to the otherwise all-female take on human relations. He’s pretty much a “sensitive, new-age guy.”
Both the book and the movie are well-written, clever, intelligent, at times amusing, and always engaging. Read one. See the other.