The Jane Austen Book Club is a motley crew of eccentrics such as California specializes in. The five women and one man who comprise the membership of the reading group are a diverse bunch, different ages, backgrounds, marital status, sexual orientations, beginning readers of Jane Austen and those who have been re-reading Austen for decades. Their common bond is that their lives are scattered, fractured and lonely. The 21st century provides them with no set of values to tell them which behaviors are right or wrong, which relationships acceptable or unacceptable. Their highest aim is to please themselves, though they seem to have no idea how to best go about it, and their personal relationships are subject to change. They are fumbling in the dark.
It seems highly improbable that such a reading group would find relevance in nineteenth century, English novels, as the club’s members are light years away from Jane Austen’s proper ladies and gentlemen who repress their emotions, delay their gratifications, maintain their dignity, conform to their society and marry, for better or for worse, till death did them part. How can ultra-modern Americans relate to characters who find divorce shocking but consider dueling with pistols to be a rational response to provocation? The book club might as well be reading about life on another planet, and yet they read Jane Austen. But their interest in Austen’s characters is perhaps no more unlikely than the viewer’s interest in the Californians’ messy lives and the viewer’s hope that the book club members will find love and happiness, and yet that happens as well.
The film begins with a well constructed reminder of the harried lives we lead in the 21st century, constantly harassed by buzzers and beepers, tones and timers, pre-recorded messages and malfunctioning machinery. It’s all so impersonal, frustrating and numbingly lonely, and yet the modern world has links to Jane Austen’s, the irresistible appeal of falling in love (Pride and Prejudice), the comfort of supportive relatives (Sense and Sensibility), the pain of dysfunctional families (Mansfield Park), the freshness of youth (Northanger Abbey), our lifelong ability to surprise ourselves (Emma) and the endurance and regenerative power of love (Persuasion). Each member of the club assumes responsibility for leading the discussion of a different book, a novel whose main character bears an uncanny resemblance to… Well, you get the picture.
With an affinity for science fiction and horror novels, Grigg (Hugh Dancy) is sweet, young and ready to fall in love at first sight. Allegra (Maggie Grace) is a risk taker who sets propriety at nought and throws herself, full throttle, at life. Light, bright and sparkling Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has turned meeting Mr. Darcy into her life’s work. Prudie (Emily Blunt) is an awkward, shy, uptight survivor, carefully maneuvering her way through relationships. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is independent, self confident and controlling, but she doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) watches helplessly as the love of her life (Jimmy Smits) pursues another woman. Does all of this sound familiar?
The Book Club is a must see for Austen fans who are bound to appreciate the references to well-loved novels and characters, but it is not necessary to have read any of Austen’s books to understand the film. Like Austen’s novels, the film’s emotional turmoil is balanced by a good deal of humour, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable film that ends too soon. There is an improbable, feel-good conclusion, but then Jane Austen was not entirely opposed to happy endings, even admittedly contrived ones, and, as Austen might have said herself, let other films dwell on guilt and misery.
Additionally, The Jane Austen Book Club is a film with a message. The Book Club reminds us of the power of literature to inspire us, to challenge us, to suggest solutions to our problems, to offer us hope and, yes, to change our lives. Although few of us would dare to recommend Persuasion as a how-to handbook for patching up troubled relationships, we must agree with Bernadette in the film who declares, if you need advice, you could do worse than Jane Austen. And, whatever else one may say about the book club, they have impeccable taste in reading material.
The Jane Austen Book Club is based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.