Kudos to Karen Joy Fowler. She’s published books, won a couple of awards, even had a Hollywood movie made out of one of them. I haven’t, so I’m perhaps not qualified to comment.
But good Lord. In preparation for the chick-lit novel I’m planning to write in November, I decided to check out some of the genre, including The Jane Austen Book Club. I chose this book because it was available at the library, I’d heard of it (which means it must be a vaguely successful example), and I like Austen, although it’s a while since I’ve read any of her novels, and as far as I can remember, I’ve only managed three, maybe four. I prefer the Brontes, to be honest. Anyway, I digress.
This novel is like a lesson in how not to write novels. There is, I think it’s fair to say, no plot. Nothing really develops throughout the book. OK, some people end up dating different people from the ones they begin with, but that all happens off camera, and without any particular drama.
The characters are the strongest element. They almost avoid being stereotypes by having a few interesting elements, and they are at least clearly distinguishable, which isn’t always easy in a book about a group of close personal acquaintances.
I’ve heard a good story defined as “plot, character and action”. If that’s what we need, there ought to be more action. Things happen to all the characters (sometimes these things are more or less obviously contrived to be like something which happens in a Jane Austen novel), but the action never really gets going before we move onto something else and never come back to it. Take the French teacher with a crush on her student. Could get interesting; doesn’t. Then we never hear about him again. In the meantime, there’s a lot of navel-gazing and a few light-touch discussions of the books they are supposed to be discussing. I’ve never been a member of a book club, but I hope any I joined would have something more interesting to say than these characters.
There are other problems too – I was unreasonably annoyed by the narrative voice. The POV of the novel is the book club as a whole, which is a little weird, and yet the narrator manages to be scathing about all the characters and ignorant of all their secrets at different times. The random excerpts from Austen novels and other books seem to be there to show Fowler has done her research; or to point out the Austen links in case we’re missing them. And care.
I checked out Goodreads to see if it’s just me who thinks like this. The first review I read starts: I’m convinced the first thing Jane Austen is going to do on the Day of Resurrection is hire a lawyer and sue the philistines who have commandeered her name and characters. However, this book is beneath her notice.
****AN UPDATE ****
It suddenly dawned on me this afternoon. Fowler hasn’t written a bad novel here; she hasn’t written a novel at all. These are her planning notes – character sketches which many writers prepare in order to get to know their protagonists; extracts from Austen novels and others to remind her which way to go; a rough idea of will end up with whom… It’s all there, and one day, she could turn this into an interesting novel. Perhaps that’s what the Hollywood screenwriters have done, since the movie seems to get better reviews than the book.
Either way, I still take my hat off to her for making money out of it. Anyone want to buy my rough notes for the novel I’m planning to write in November?