Sunday, January 27, 2008

Barren B*tches Book Brigade: "The Jane Austen Book Club"

This is the second time I've taken part in the Barren B*tches Book Brigade via the Stirrup Queen's blog. In a departure from the past, this tour's selection is a non-infertility related volume, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. This was a nice read over Christmas vacation for me, being both an avid reader, someone who's always thought it would be fun to be part of a book club (so here I am...!), and a reader who's enjoyed three of Austen's five novels. I do wonder what readers who are not familiar with at least some of Jane Austen's books thought about it. Which is not to say you shouldn't read the novel if you haven't read Austen (it's a fun novel on its own merits, and there is even a synopsis of all of Austen's book plots at the back to help you out), but I imagine your perspective may be quite different.

I read those three Austen novels some years ago (so the synopsis at the back was helpful in refreshing my memory!), & have the other two in my perpetural "to read" pile. I first read Austen -- Emma -- in my first-year university English class on the the history of the novel. I loved the course, the book & the professor. I later read Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility on my own. Saw the film version of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow & Toni Collette, and parts of Pride & Prejudice with Laurence Olivier & Greer Garson (but not (yet), alas, the infamous version with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, nor the latest incarnation with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth). Also saw Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet as the sisters, and Hugh Grant & Alan Rickman as the men in their lives. (This movie is notable for being the one period movie/chick flick I ever dragged dh to that he did NOT wind up liking!) Oh yes, and Bride & Prejudice, the modern-day Indian/Bollywood take on the novel starring the beauteous Aishwarya Rai, which was a hoot.

The way the BBBB works is people sign up, read the book & submit a question. All the questions are distributed to all the participants, and we pick at least three to answer in our blog. After reading my take on the book, you can hp along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Embryo Culture by Beth Kohl (with author participation!).

Okay, on to some of the questions! (Some of them were similar, in which case, I've grouped them together.)

In one part of the book, Jocelyn and Sylvia were discussing happiness. One of them said that "Happiness in marriage is mostly luck..." What are your thoughts on happiness? Do you think that our happiness in life is mostly luck? Do we have some control over how happy we are?

I looked back through my book and couldn't find this passage. At any rate, I think luck does play a role in our lives, but I think we create our own luck & our own happiness to some extent too. Life takes unexpected turns sometimes -- it's up to us what we do when that happens.

Which character in the Jane Austen Book Club did you most relate to? And what is your favorite Jane Austen novel and why?

I didn't recall any one character jumping out at me & thinking, "Oh my gosh, she's just like me!" Flipping back through the book, two characters reminded me of myself. First, Prudie, which surprised me to some extent, because I actually found her a little on the unlikeable side. In the scene where she & Jocelyn meet at the movie theatre & Jocelyne shushes the people talking -- I'm like Prudie. People talking in movie theatres (or on the commuter train!) drive me nuts, but I would never (or very rarely) speak up about it, and I would probably die of embarrassment if dh ever did. Like Prudie, I'm very organized, with to-do lists all over the place. Like Prudie, I have said things I have regretted (to my mother & others), and cringe at the memory now. Like Prudie, I have/had (especially as a child) a hugely rich fantasy life and sometimes found real life dull & disappointing by comparison.

I had to laugh when I read the sentence (Prudie, about her husband-to-be Dean): "Forget the fact that he would look so good walking in next to her at her high school reunions. Some people would be so surprised." I was always regarded as something of a geek in high school and never had a date. In grade 12, I got contact lenses, which boosted my confidence immensely, & then I went off to university, which was a whole new ball game. In the spring of my first year, I met J., who was drop-dead gorgeous and nice to boot. So nice, in fact, that he came to visit me during the summer & went with me to my high school's all-school 75th anniversary reunion. I actually saw jaws drop when I walked into the hall with this great-looking guy beside me -- one of the more satisfying moments of my life. ; ) (We broke up less than a year later, & I went on to meet dh.)

The other person I could relate to was Sylvia. I'm a genealogist & all her reflections on genealogy at the start of Chapter Six rang so true to me.

Daniel asks Sylvia whether she's happy & says "I can't always tell." Dh often says the same thing about me -- that he can't always tell what I'm thinking. "She was too subdued, too reticent" -- that's me too. I am not prone to spilling my guts, verbally, anyway. (I save it all for paper, or the keyboard!) I am sometimes too much the journalist, seeing both sides of every story. There are many things that I can't or won't express a strong opinion about, because I can see both sides of thing and am often inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt. It drives dh nuts sometimes.

As mentioned above, I've read three Austen novels. I'm fond of Emma because it was the first, & because I studied it so thoroughly in school. Emma herself, however, was somewhat unlikeable. I rather prefer the spirited Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, and Pride & Prejudice. Out of the three Austen novels that I've read, it's the one that sticks with me the most.

Which character in the book could you most relate to, and why? (see my previous answer) Which one could you least relate to, and why?

I could least relate to Bernadette and all her husbands. What a bizarre life she had. But I probably found her the most entertaining!

Jocelyn and Sylvia are closer than most sisters. Their relationship has withstood many tests. Do you have a particular friend who has stood by you through thick and thin in ways that stand out from most friendships, and if so what brought you together and what keeps the relationship so special?

For five years, from the time I was 8 until I was 13, we lived in a small town, across the street from a family who had three daughters -- one was two grades ahead of me, one was in the same grade as me and the youngest was three years younger than me (two years younger than my sister). The five of us soon became inseparable. People used to ask whether we were related, because we even looked alike, and we used to all dress alike too.

Despite the fact that we moved away, our families remained close & we visited often. (And this was in an era when long distance calls were rare and expensive, and there was no Internet.) Spending New Year's Eve together became something of a tradition. At one point, the middle daughter & I calculated that we had spent something like 13 consecutive New Year's Eves together, including visiting each other while in university. When I got married, she was my bridesmaid, her older sister sang at the ceremony and the younger sister attended the guest book. I consider/ed their parents to be my second mom & dad.

The younger sister had a twin sister who died at birth, and when I lost my Katie, their mom was one of the first people to call me and tell me a little about how she got through that terrible time. The middle sister called me & sobbed with me on the phone, and told me about her own struggles to conceive. (Both she & the older sister have adopted.)

Funnily enough, perhaps because we never grew up talking to each other long distance very much (our mothers would enforce strict time limits), we don't call each other very often, or see each other very often now either. But whenever we are together, it's like time just melts away and we pick up where we last left off. We shared so much when we were growing up, & know each other so well. They are my other sisters.

Sylvia described her MIL as affectless, polite but distant until she lost her son when she watch her "crumple like paper." Are there those in your life who have been affectless or polite but distant and then surprised you with their emotional depth?

When I first read this passage, it made me think back to when my grandmother (my dad's mother) died, when I was 14. I had never seen or heard my father cry before & it was (and still is) the worst thing in the world to me. On one of the phone calls between me & my mother, after I learned my daughter was dead & I would have to deliver her, she said she would pass the phone to my father, then said, "No... Daddy can't talk right now." There was a catch in her voice and I started crying again, thinking about how this horrible news was affecting my father. I'm crying now again, just thinking about it.

I always thought of a woman I knew at work as pleasant but somewhat cerebral. After I lost my daughter, she asked me whether we'd been trying for a long time, and told me about her own struggles to conceive. We started going for coffee regularly. Eventually she had two miscarriages and then two successful pregnancies through IVF & FET (a girl & then a boy). Another friend & I took her for lunch before she headed off on her first maternity leave, & we all got very emotional when the time came to say goodbye. She hugged me and said, "You've been a good friend."

Allegra is described as "liking being an aunt. That it offered all the kid time she needed. Probably. All she wanted mostly." If you don't have your own children, but are an aunt how important is that role to you and, what special rewards does it offer?

I don't have children, but we do have two nephews -- the sons of dh's younger brother, who are currently 15 & 19. (My own younger sister is childfree by choice.) I love being an aunt, but I have to admit that dh is closer to the boys than I am. I felt much closer to them when they were little, but as they got older & more rough & tumble & into boy-type stuff, they could relate more to dh, I think. Dh's cousins & aunts say it's like watching dh & his brother all over again.

They live an hour away, so we don't get to see as much of them as we like. Still, we get together a couple of times a month, & have been there for all the important occasions in their life, like first communions & high school graduations, and spoil them with presents. I used to bring them special baggies of Halloween & Valentine's Day & Easter candy when they were smaller. I'm the one who has taken most of the photos of them that exist, and I'm making scrapbooks for them both now.

I must say, if I had known that they were going to be IT, I would have made even more of an effort to spoil them than we already have -- had them over for more sleepovers. They're too old for that now. Still, I think we've been a good aunt & uncle to them over the years, & they know we love them. I know they adore dh & I think they are fond of me. I just hope that, someday, when we're old & grey and in the nursing home, they'll remember the fun times we had together, & look in on us now & then.

BIL said to dh after we lost Katie, "You'll always have the boys." Well, thanks, and we adore them, but we are NOT their parents and they in no way make up for our loss. Sorry. Being an aunt & being a mother are two different roles entirely. It is a special thing to be an aunt, but it is NOT the same as having your own child.

Intrigued by the idea of a book tour and want to read more about The Jane Austen Book Club? Hop along to more stops on the Barren Bitches Book Brigade by visiting the master list at Want to come along for the next tour? Sign up begins today for tour #10 (Embryo Culture by Beth Kohl with author participation!) and all are welcome to join along . All you need is a book and blog.


  1. I read this over the holidays, too, in Ireland and found it a great escape on the plane and during those moments of jet-lag induced insomnia. I hadn't considered what the novel would be like if someone was not familiar with Jane Austen or her works. As an English Lit major, I was imagining that everyone knows her! I'm clearly biased, but outside of the Jane novel references, the dynamics of the story and the characters stood on its own for me. I especially liked the windows into each of the characters' lives. I found myself eagerly anticipating each chapter as the "secret" knowledge informed so much of who they were. Lots of "ah, so that's how they came to be this way or that..."

    Great answers to the questions. I was able to learn more about you, too!

  2. Great answers to some interesting questions.

    I had similar friends growing up (there were 10 children in the family!) and they moved away when we were in junior high school and we lost touch (we tried, but they moved 800 miles away--the distance was too much). Weirdly enough, when I became an adult, my fiance and I moved to the same state and same CITY as they had moved to. I tried to re-connect with them, but frankly, other than our childhood together, we had nothing to re-connect with. Glad you have been more "lucky".

  3. Great, thoughtful answers. Thanks for sharing your experiences openly!

  4. I love your stories. The boy you took to the school anniversary party and the family friends who were your other sisters...Your stories actually brought more depth to my reading of the book.

  5. I like your responses. We should go to the movies together, I'm the FIRST one to speak up if people are talking, it bugs me to no end in the movies.

    I was one that had never read an Austen novel, and it was a bit distracting for me, but it has also intrigued me enough to get a few next time I hit the library.

    My sister is currently TTC. We did our first IVF at the same time. I have 10 month old twins now, and she is still trying. She is so wonderful to my children (she lives 1 mile away) and always says to me "If it never happens, I'll always have your kids." I love that she treats them as her own, but I know it's not the same, and I'm hopeful that she will get to experience it. But I'm also glad that she has forged such a close bond, and feels that if it never happens for her, she can have a special closeness to them.

    Thanks for your honesty.

  6. HI Loribeth,

    I also read the book over the holidays! It's a bit like Jane Austen in that can always return there for comfort and escapism. You said something I also identified with in Sylvia's character, but forgot about - subdued, hard to express emotions in a verbal sense. I loved your story about your sisters across the road and it's wonderful that you have such a great relationship with your nephews.