The opening line of The Jane Austen Book Club is: "Each of us has a private Austen." One applauds the author's wariness. Readers are possessive of this author as no other. The true Janeite would not dream of reading any of the lacklustre "sequels" produced by other pens, and views much Austen scholarship with suspicion. Instead, we reread the six novels about once a year and occasionally, when weakened by infirmity, secretly watch Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in his wet shirt on DVD. We see Jane Austen's work turned into a Bollywood musical, a Hollywood blockbuster and a British heritage trail, and are mildly appalled. She is our heroine, our goddess and our best friend. How did she get to be like this?
In California, six unhappy people meet once a month in each other's homes to discuss the six novels. (There were a couple of other unfinished ones, and some juvenilia, but they are ignored.) In a particularly smart and witty move, Karen Joy Fowler has each one choose the novel best suited to their temperament. Rich, bossy Jocelyn gets Emma; romantic Bernadette, Pride and Prejudice; and Sylvia, whose husband of 32 years is divorcing her, gets Persuasion, that testament to patient suffering. Allegra, Sylvia's bold lesbian daughter, gets Sense and Sensibility and the maddeningly prim Prudie gets Mansfield Park. Grigg, the only man in the group, is a science- fiction fan and hasn't even read Austen before. He gets Northanger Abbey, the novel that comes closest to the kind of playful knowingness in which metafiction (or fiction about fiction) delights.
As each novel is discussed, so we get to know Fowler's own cast, who range in age from 67 (Bernadette) to 28 (Prudie). All are connected to each other through friendship, love and marriage. Here, in the 21st century, their entanglements are the foil to those of Austen's characters. Just in case we fail to pick up on any of the points they make, the novel ends with a series of questions that each character asks. These include: "Do you ever wish your partner had been written by some other writer, had better dialogue and a more charming way of suffering? What writer would you choose?" Such self-consciousness could be irritating, but is not. Also near the end of the novel, Fowler has added what she calls "The Response", charting the reaction of various readers, from Austen's mother to J K Rowling. This section alone is worth the price of the book.
The Jane Austen Book Club will appeal to the same good-hearted audience that finds Alice Hoffman charming. Fowler's story is a witty and thoroughly endearing romantic comedy, and if its premise is contrived, it at least flatters the intelligence - unlike much other bestselling American fiction. The one single man in the novel, naturally, does find a partner within the group, and everyone ends up happy. There are deliciously funny riffs, such as the pompous mystery writer whose hero, a farmer, can never plough his fields without discovering a fresh corpse, and an SF convention at a hotel, which gives Fowler (herself an SF writer) the opportunity to tell some sly jokes about overenthusiastic fans.
Mostly, however, she sticks remorselessly to the programme. If her characters sometimes seem reminiscent of dolls being moved about in a doll's house, this will not matter a jot to the book clubs that will devour the novel as a combination of fiction and further education. They are all nice people with nice houses and nice lives: the kind of people about whom Austen herself wrote, and whom we ourselves may wish to be - only portrayed without the genius that makes such people immortal.
Amanda Craig's latest novel, Love in Idleness, is published by Abacus