Book-clubbers, Jane Austen, fame

Books of May

May 02, 2004|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

At first glance, Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club (Putnam, 304 pages, $23.95) seems geared toward an impossibly exclusive audience, inscrutable to anyone without a working knowledge of Austen's novels. But foremost among the many surprises in Fowler's sixth book is the fact that nonconnoisseurs can enjoy it as well.

True, the premise involves six book-club members in a small central California town who meet regularly to discuss Austen's fiction. And yes, there are echoes of Austen throughout this more contemporary but no less stylish comedy of manners. Yet Fowler has perfected a wonderfully digressive storytelling method that makes the book-club meetings a convenient structural device rather than the main point of the novel itself.

In each chapter, then, while each of the characters leads the group discussion for his or her favorite Austen novel, Fowler plumbs their histories in a charmingly discursive, light-handed way. There is Bernadette, at 67 the eldest of the group, cheerfully loquacious and many times married; Jocelyn, a dog breeder in her early 50s; Jocelyn's best friend, Sylvia, whose husband is in the process of leaving her; Allegra, Sylvia's sky-diving lesbian daughter; Prudie, a high-school French teacher in her late 20s; and Grigg, a 40-ish single man, who adds a Darcy-like potential for romance to this feminine group.

Fowler's oblique zigzagging through these peoples' lives is so deft that her best observations sneak up on the reader: "Sylvia thought how all parents wanted an impossible life for their children -- happy beginning, happy middle, happy ending. no plot of any kind. What uninteresting people would result if parents got their way."

Sylvia could easily be describing Dr. Evelyn Rubin, the well-heeled Philadelphia obstetrician who dominates Rachel Pastan's first novel, This Side of Married (Viking, 272 pages, $23.95). At 61, Rubin yearns for grandchildren, yet none of her three daughters seems willing to comply. Two of the Rubin girls, Alice and Tina, are still unmarried at 30 and 38; and the middle daughter, Isabel, is about to separate from her philandering husband. Things get worse when Alice becomes engaged to a perfect-seeming doctor with a less-than-flawless personal history, while Tina finds herself pregnant by an eccentric philanthropist who, it turns out, is already married with children.

It's not surprising to see Jane Austen make an appearance in Pastan's novel as well, in the form of an epigraph from Pride and Prejudice. Like Karen Joy Fowler and Austen herself, Pastan has a wry yet courteous way with her characters, probing their virtues and deficiencies in a marvelously droll fashion.

John O'Farrell is a British television writer and novelist whose latest book, This Is Your Life (Grove / Atlantic, 320 pages, $12), is an entertaining farce about the empty promises of celebrity. Jimmy Conway has dreamed of being famous since he was little, but has failed to devise any kind of plan for achieving that fame. Now 35 and living in the quiet coastal town of Seaford, Jimmy teaches English to immigrants at the local language school while fiddling in his spare time with a few screenplay ideas.

Things change quickly, however, when a popular TV comedian happens to drop dead while jogging near Jimmy's house. After gate-crashing the funeral, Jimmy manages to convince a journalist that he, too, is a successful stand-up comic. One deception leads to another, thanks to forged reviews and some very creative lying, until Jimmy all too effortlessly achieves the fame he has craved for so long.

"People moaned that these days public figures were more interested in spin than substance," he remarks. "Well, I was going for no content whatsoever -- I was going to be 100 percent spin and zero substance." If you're guessing that Jimmy learns in the end that celebrity won't cure loneliness, that his old Seaford pals are the people who matter most, and that his friend Nancy was always his one true love, you'd be right. It's also true, though, that O'Farrell manages to refresh this timeworn emperor's-new-clothes routine with plenty of comic sparkle.

From worlds away, in Israel, comes an impressive debut novel by Sayed Kashua, a 28-year-old Israeli-Arab who works as a journalist in a village near Jerusalem. Dancing Arabs (Grove, 224 pages, $12), which has already been translated into six languages, is the coming-of-age story of a bright young Palestinian boy who wins a scholarship to an elite Jewish boarding school. The occasion provides a ray of hope for the boy's impoverished parents, who dare to pray that their son will build the first Arab atom bomb. But for the boy, this opportunity means trading one set of humiliations for another: In his Arab village school he had to endure beatings, lice inspections and filthy conditions, while in the new school he lacks the right language, the right clothing, the right religion.

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