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In admiration of Austen

Karen Joy Fowler takes her cues from the 19th century novelist in a funny, modern-day character study.

June 05, 2004|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — It's an irony Jane Austen would surely appreciate. Karen Joy Fowler writes a novel called "The Jane Austen Book Club," about a half-dozen people who form a reading group dedicated to the appreciation of works by you-know-who. Fowler, a 54-year-old Californian, does this in part because of her own love for the 19th century novelist, whom she describes as "a very flexible kind of writer. At every point in my life, whatever I have needed to see in her has been there, and I assume that's true for other readers too."

Well, maybe not. Back in Fowler's hometown of Davis, where she's the facilitator of a book club run out of the Avid Reader, the local independent bookstore, it seems Austen's "Emma" was roundly disliked.

"People in the book group said it was slow and they didn't like the main character," says Fowler of that comedy of manners about a bossy woman who tries to act as a matchmaker for friends and family. "Maybe some of them liked it, but some of them didn't even finish it."

That is certainly not the reaction to Fowler's breezy, charming and utterly readable novel, which has been greeted with rapturous reviews ("Subtle and playful," said USA Today; "Exquisite," lauded the New York Times) and has slowly been climbing up the bestseller lists.

It's essentially a character study, shot through with humor, about the six very different people (most of them based on Austen characters) who make up the club: Jocelyn, a bossy, middle-aged dog breeder who's patterned on Emma; Prudie, a pretentious, French-speaking high school teacher in the mold of Mrs. Elton, one of "Emma's" most noxious characters; and Bernadette, a 60ish eccentric with several marriages behind her who seems to have stepped straight out of almost any 19th century novel of manners you'd care to mention.

"For all but Grigg [the only male in the group], my starting point was a Jane Austen character, then I tried to fill it in in different ways that would take the character in different directions," says Fowler.

"Some people have accused me of having a targeted, very commercial idea. Which in light of my previous work is kind of an astonishing thing to be accused of."

Fowler is referring to the fact that if she is known at all, it's for her work in fantasy and science fiction. She began reading the genre while in college (she has a master's degree in political science from UC Davis), concentrating on such feminist writers in the field as Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ and Kate Wilhelm.

Since then, Fowler has written "Black Glass," a collection of science-fiction stories, and "Sister Noon," a science-fiction/fantasy/historical novel hybrid that was a 2002 finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. And if that doesn't sound about as far removed from Austen's world as you can get, Fowler is now working on a novel based on a 1950s experiment in which chimpanzees were home-raised with humans to see what their linguistic capabilities might be.

So right about now, you can be forgiven for thinking that the author of "The Jane Austen Book Club" suffers from a severe case of literary schizophrenia. But Fowler, who says her all-time favorite TV show is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," is here to set you straight. "I like reading anything that takes place in a strange landscape that I have to imagine," she says.

"A lot of my friends in the science-fiction field read Jane Austen the same way they read sci-fi: It's kind of a world-building exercise. It's a strange world, and you're trying to make sense of it."

Certainly, Austen's universe, with economically desperate women hoping to make the best marriages possible in a highly structured social atmosphere, is in many ways alien to our more enlightened 21st century mores. Or is it? As far as Fowler is concerned, one of the great things about Austen is the many ways in which she can be read.

"When I was first interested in feminism, what I noticed most in the novels was the economic realities of enforced marriages," she says. "Before that, when I was younger, I read her as a romance writer. And when I had kids, it seemed to me the books were more about the extended family. A lot of whatever you're interested in you can bring to the reading."

Which is not to say that you have to be an Austen expert to enjoy "The Jane Austen Book Club." Although there is plenty of discussion about Austen's work in Fowler's novel, knowledge of the books is not a prerequisite. Even if all you know about Jane Austen comes from the film "Clueless" -- which, incidentally, is Fowler's favorite movie adaptation of Austen's work (it's based on "Emma") -- you'll do just fine.

But Fowler is also finding out that readers who actively dislike Austen's work are reading her book.

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