Friendship by the book

When six friends gather to discuss Jane Austen's novels, they never suspect their own lives will be remade

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I'm instinctively wary of genetic engineering, but Karen Fowler may have produced a literary equivalent of the elusive Super Tomato. "The Jane Austen Book Club" is modern chick lit spliced with genes from 19th-century romantic comedy. In fact, Fowler has so craftily designed this new novel to appeal to smart, middle-aged, book-buying women that one regards its demographic precision cynically. I'm sorry to report that it's delightful.

Her leisurely story revolves around the monthly meetings of six people - five women and one man - who gather to discuss Jane Austen's domestic romances. You don't have to know Austen's work to enjoy it, but if you've read them, you'll catch all kinds of witty parallels with the lives of these modern fans.

I wouldn't normally recommend this, but start with the appendix. Fowler's breezy summary of Austen's novels at the back is a good refresher for anyone who finds the details of "Mansfield Park" blurring with "Northanger Abbey."

Recommended: Default

And there are 20 irresistible pages of quotations about Austen's work from critics and authors over the past 200 years, including some wry comments by Austen herself. Writing about "Emma," for instance, she notes that her old friend Mr. Fowle "read only the first & last Chapters, because he had heard it was not interesting." Mark Twain fumes, "Every time I read 'Pride & Prejudice' I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone." An early 20th-century critic observes that "the reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause. They are nearly all fanatics."

Not all the members of the Jane Austen Book Club in this novel are equally fanatic, but they're all equally engaging:

1. Their leader, Jocelyn, is a dog breeder who, like Austen, never married but approaches the affairs of others with the same deliberate planning she brings to the kennel. The friends she chooses for this group "suspect a hidden agenda, but who," they wonder, "would put Jane Austen to an evil purpose?"

2. At 67, Bernadette is the oldest member and, alas, the most talkative. She considers her countless marriages proof of her devotion to the institution.

3. Purdie is the only one married at the opening of the book, and she's shocked to discover her fidelity tested by the hunky students in her high school French class.

4. Sylvia is trying to hate the cad who abandoned her after 32 years of marriage, but she's not having much success.

5. Allegra, Sylvia's lesbian daughter, is struggling to forgive a lover who betrayed her, and she's succeeding too well.

6. Grigg, the eligible bachelor (despite an alarming interest in science fiction), has been recruited to the group as a new partner for Sylvia, but fans of "Emma" can already guess how those plans go awry.

As in Austen's novels, nothing much happens in this story, and yet everything happens. The chapters rotate through these six characters as they meet throughout the year, but while their meetings provide the skeleton, they're not really the meat of the book; in at least one chapter, we never even make it to the monthly meeting. Some of my favorite parts, though, are Fowler's dead-on portrayal of book-club talk and the silent dialogue that rages beneath everyone's efforts to be appreciative and encouraging (no matter how boring or harebrained so-and-so's comments are.)

Although Fowler has a charming voice all her own, she's managed to pick up Austen's wry accent as she recounts the sad, funny, touching, and constantly entertaining experiences that have shaped these six readers. Much of the gritty details of modern life, of course, don't appear in Austen's fiction, and Sylvia notes that a person could be seriously misled by treating her novels as a road map of what's ahead. (One chapter, in fact, begins with "a partial list of things not found in the books of Jane Austen: locked-room murders, spies, cats....") But even though Fowler has a thoroughly modern sense of contemporary sensibilities, she's equally devoted to those old-fashioned ideals that virtue will eventually be recognized, love will finally prevail, and despair that threatens to settle in permanently can be dissolved by genuine affection.

Jane Austen doesn't need a publicist, of course, and book clubs probably don't need any encouragement, but Fowler has written a testament to the happy marriage of literature and friendship, and that's always something to embrace.

Book clubs multiply

Although stores and publishers court book clubs in ever more inventive ways, there are no good statistics about the number of Americans who gather periodically in homes and libraries to talk about what they've read. Even Robert Putnam, who managed to track the status of all kinds of social groups in "Bowling Alone," confessed that when it comes to book clubs, "the numbers are a bit uncertain."

Oprah, still the most powerful bestseller maker in America, counts about 200,000 members in her online book club (www.oprah.com). Houghton Mifflin published 700,000 copies of Carson McCullers's "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" in response to Oprah's announcement last week that it's her next choice.

Yahoo lists more than 1,200 reading-group categories, from the general ("People who like books") to the specific ("Sistahs who reside in the L.A. area.").

Each month, 100,000 visitors come to The Book Report Network looking for information about how to start, maintain, and even feed a book club (www.readinggroupguides.com). The site's main attraction is a collection of more than 1,300 reading guides, mostly supplied by publishers and authors.

Some publishers now bind these guides into their trade paperbacks when they sense the hardback has inspired major book-club interest (e.g. "The Red Tent"). Remember, though, these guides are written by people who really want you to like and recommend their books.

Ten years ago, Rachel Jacobsohn literally wrote the book on reading groups: "The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Book Club" (Hyperion, revised 1998). She's a professional facilitator with 30 years of experience who leads 16 book clubs a month in the Chicago area and conducts workshops for book-club leaders around the country. (You can contact her at rachelj1@comcast.com.) Pressed to estimate the number of people involved in book clubs in America, Ms. Jacobsohn suggests 7 to 8 million.

As the founder and president of the Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders, she says beginning facilitators make about $40 to $50 a session, but experienced leaders charge up to $500 on the East and West Coasts.

Jacobsohn writes a newsletter called "Reverberations" for about 1,000 member groups ($20 a year). And she's on the advisory board of BookMuse, where you can find discussion guides, author blogs, tips for group leaders, and suggestions for further reading. Access to most of their material costs $35 a year (www.bookmuse.com).

While Jacobsohn sees some value in the discussion guides that publishers supply, she doesn't let them outline the range of discussion. "People come together to share independent thinking about a book. That's the magic of the original goal."

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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