‘Book Club’ heaven for Jane Austen fans
November 15, 2007
The big issues ” at least, the big issues of mating rituals ” don’t seem to have changed much over the last 200 years. Then as now, men and women formed couples for a variety of reasons: financial, emotional, sexual, societal and due to the pressures of friends and family. And romance ” or courting and marrying even in the absence of romance ” was and is a mysterious subject, with even those in the relationships unsure of how and why they got there, and whether they should remain.
This was true in the books of Jane Austen, the 18th century writer who became the first significant female novelist in the English language, and a supremely enduring presence in English literature. And it is true in the fictional lives of the handful of women in Sacramento, Calif. who love and despair ” and read ” in “The Jane Austen Book Club.” Adapted by Robin Swicord from Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 novel, the film follows the members of an Austen-only book club as they discover that their romantic roads have been walked before ” some two centuries ago, by Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennet, the Dashwood sisters, and the other heroines of Austen’s novels.
“The Jane Austen Book Club” makes no effort to approximate the setting, style or feel of an Austen novel. In fact Swicord goes to great lengths to give her story a contemporary feel; the place-setting introductory scene is a survey of modern America jammed with traffic, stores and an overabundance of cell phones.
Out of this hectic miasma are plucked several women, handpicked not only by their misfortunes in love, but also to represent a decently broad slice of womanhood. There is the experienced, carefree woman, Bernadette (Kathy Baker), who has tasted of six husbands and is contemplating sampling another; the sexy but never-married Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who prefers the company of breeding dogs to that of men; Prudie (Emily Blunt), an uptight high school English teacher (specialty: Jane Austen) married to a sports-loving, literature-disdaining oaf; and the zestful young Allegra (Maggie Grace), who alone carries the banner of multi-culturalism ” she is a lesbian; part Latino; and eventually takes up with a black woman.
Bringing these women together into a book club is the plight of Allegra’s mother, Sylvia (Amy Brenneman). A librarian, she is in the process of being dumped by her husband (Jimmy Smits), and left to confront middle-age in the unexpected role of a single woman. Her friends rally around her with weekly get-togethers of wine, food, companionship and discussion. The Austen references fly about, and anyone not well-versed in the Austen bibliography runs a risk of getting lost in the chatter ” high-level chatter; these ladies are well-versed in the oeuvre.
For those of us not so steeped in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma,” there is plenty of real-time dramas of the heart generated in the book club. The best of these is a romantic quadrangle involving Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a tech support guy who is drafted into the book club. Jocelyn’s motive in reining him in is covert but well-intended; she figures an encounter with a handsome, sensitive young man will do wonders for Sylvia. But every time Jocelyn nudges Grigg toward Sylvia, he assumes it is the more age-appropriate Allegra he is being set up with. Meanwhile, Grigg and Jocelyn have a natural chemistry, which Jocelyn forces herself to ignore.
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It’s fluffy and spotty and it all ends with a soft landing which puts it solidly in chick-flick land. For most of us, that translates to an acceptable level of enjoyment. For a Jane Austen fan, this is bound to be heaven.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org