Fowler has come a long, long way since winning a science fiction short story contest in 1985 (one I also entered!)–making the leap from genre fiction to New York Times bestseller is incredibly rare. This isn’t a ground-breaking novel, but it’s enormously satisfying in many ways (and must have led to a huge Austen revival, if I’m any kind of example, because I went on to read all 6 novels for the first time). We meet six characters, five women and one man, and learn something about each of them as their informal book club reads through all of Austen. Fowler begins by telling us: “Each of us has a private Austen,” and part of the fun comes from seeing the books through different lenses. Like Austen, Fowler has a sharp eye for human foibles and a dry way of pointing them out.
“I think we should all be women,” Bernadette suggested next. “The dynamic changes with men. They pontificate rather than communicate. They talk more than their share.”
Jocelyn opened her mouth.
“No one can get a word in,” Bernadette warned her. “Women are too tentative to interrupt, no matter how long someone has gone on.”
Jocelyn cleared her throat.
“Besides, men don’t do book clubs,” Bernadette said. “They see reading as a solitary pleasure. When they read at all.”
Jocelyn closed her mouth.
Grigg, the one man who’s invited to join the club, is to my mind the most likeable character (and Fowler’s stand-in for a nice, if partisan, set-piece where people dismissive of science fiction are shown up as boorish, ignorant louts). Some of the six remain more opaque than others, but there’s a pleasing resolution to each story and a properly Austenish matchup at the end.
We get a lot of enjoyable supporting material–information about Austen and her contemporaries, interpolated insights on some of the characters, a summary of the Austen novels and critical opinions of them–and most delightfully, at the end, questions for the reader posed by the characters, some about Austen and some about the novel itself.
I think I need to re-read this book now that I’ve actually read the Austen novels, and see what I missed the first time around. One of my favorite things about reading is correspondences and connections between books, and the way that one leads to others. Unlike the coat-tail riders who write sequels to classic novels, or steal another author’s characters to spice up their own languishing careers with a marketing hook, Fowler has found a way to create a novel that’s entirely hers, while legitimately enriching it with ties to a common literary experience.